The Wisdom of the Ancients: well, 58-year-olds

I normally quite like Dr Michael Mosely. If you’ve not seen him, he’s one of those tv docs that do pop science programmes: normally, I find the science bit isn’t too totally dumbed down. However, a couple of months ago he did a programme on ageing and the brain that really pissed me off.

Dr Hannah Fry

It was one of those, ‘let’s get a few random punters in and do some lameo experiments on them to prove that your mental faculties decline with age’ type things. It was co-presented by Dr Hannah Fry, who seemed to take particular pleasure in slagging off Mosely for being, well, older than she is, and therefore undoubtedly dumber. I stopped watching half way through, but the general thrust seemed to be that by the time you’ve hit your fifties your brain is more than two thirds of the way to having all the cognitive skills of purple sprouting broccoli.

But what about wisdom? I found myself asking the grinning, joshing pair of soi-disant scientists. How do you measure that, eh? They had no answer to that, possibly because they couldn’t hear me through the thick glass of the TV screen.

I turn 58 in a couple of weeks. I know, huh? It’s the fresh sea air this far inland. So, in the absence of any better ideas (probably those declining cognitive abilities) I decided to see what the Holy Trinity of singer-songwriters – Cave, Cohen and Dylan, hallowed be their names – were up to around the time they turned that shade of venerable. What wisdom could a 58-year old be expected to dispense – albeit a genius, so not exactly a control experiment?

Bob Dylan

Dylan was born in 1941, so the application of mental arithmetic (or the wee calculator that comes with Windows) shows he was 58 in 1999. That was square between two albums: 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and 2001’s Love and Theft.

I actually have both of these, as they were well received at the time and represented something of a comeback for His Bobness after a difficult couple of decades. Time Out of Mind is the one that gets more spins, generally: it was Dylan’s second album to be produced by Daniel Lanois, after 1989’s Oh Mercy. It’s been criticised as overproduced, but there are some strong songs on it, including the rocking ‘Cold Irons Bound,’ and a long, rambling Dylanesque shaggy dog to finish, ‘Highlands.’

If you don’t like Dylan, there’s still something on it that you’ll have heard. Featuring strings, pedal steel and Dylan croaking away, it wasn’t immediately recognised as a stone cold classic. However, other artists of the quality of Billy Joel, Bryan Ferry and, er, Garth Brooks recorded it. Then a young British singer by the name of Adele got a hold of ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ and the rest is open mic nights and TV talent shows.

Incidentally, my favourite track from the album is ‘Not Dark Yet,’ but that’s probably just the Scottish Presbyterian gloom deep in my soul. Shortly after recording the album, Bob had a nasty brush with the Grim Reaper in the form of something called histoplasmosis, so many Dylanologists saw it as in some way prophetic. Fortunately he came out the other side and is alive and croaking away to this day.

Cave speaking into a microphone.
Pic: By Bleddyn Butcher – Nick Cave Management office at ATC / London, CC0,

Nick Cave

Speaking of gloom, the Cavester is a bit closer in age to myself: he was the tender age of 58 in 2015. It was not a good year for him: his son, Arthur, died.

So let’s focus on the album before that, 2013’s Push the Sky Away. The single from it was ‘Jubilee Street,’ with its great opeining lines:

‘On Jubilee Street
There was a girl named Bee
She had a history
But she had no past
When they shut her down
The Russians moved in…’

My personal favourite, partly because Mark, Kenny and I did a spoken word version of it live a couple of times, is ‘Higgs Boson Blues,’ with its swampy mix of Hadron Colliders, Robert Johnson, MLK assasination and Hannah Montana references. We never quite did get it perfect, boys, did we?

Leonard Cohen

On his 2009 live album, Live in London, Cohen jokes that it’s the first time he’s played there for about 15 years, when he was ’60 years old: just a kid with a crazy dream.’ That may be so, but at 58 he was producing some of his best work. In 1992, he released The Future, written in the midst of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Los Angeles riots.

It wasn’t exactly a quiet time in Leonard’s life either. He was helping his son Adam convalesce after a serious car accident, and going out with Rebecca de Mornay. That may explain why the album was recorded in multiple recording studios and featuring a cast of thousands as musicians and backing singers.

Despite all those distractions, title track ‘The Future’ sounds like an Old Testament prophecy:

Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St. Paul
I’ve seen the future, brother
It is murder
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul…

Whilst ‘Anthem,’ one of my favourite Cohen songs, apparently took a decade to write, borrowing from Kabbalistic sources:

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in…

Not bad for purple sprouting broccoli, huh? What do you think, Dr Hannah Fry?

Well, I can’t match any of these types for wisdom or musical genius. All the same, here’s something from this soon-to-be 58 year old: another demo track, this time from a group of songs that may coalesce into a Springsteen-themed EP, although they might also pop up in other albums. As ever, feedback always appreciated.

(Incidentally, I do appreciate this post focuses on male songwriters. I intend to redress the balance soon).








  1. There are several writers who didn’t start writing until late 50s or even later. It’s maybe, at least to some degree, more a case of keep being creative and you’ll continue being creative / keep up with mental challenges and you’ll stay relatively mentally alert.

    • Thanks for stopping in, Juliet. I suppose I was focusing on writers who already had many years of work behind them and yet, even at my advanced age, were still producing new, surprising work. But yes, a creative half hour a day keeps the broccoli away!

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