The paperback edition of my book The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music has been published. In the eighteen months since the publication of the hardback edition, two of my major case studies have died (Ralph Stanley and Leonard Cohen), as well as two artists whose work had a profound influence on the book (Merle Haggard and Guy Clark). Given this and the outpouring of public grief for these and other lost musicians during 2016, I added a short preface to the new edition. The new text is reproduced below; some of it has previously been published on this website.
Late Thoughts on Late Singers: A Preface to the Paperback Edition
There’s a line in the first verse of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song ‘Mr Bojangles’ in which the titular figure is described as seeming like ‘the eyes of age’. The words capture what it means to recognise the passage of time and experience in another’s body, as both evidence of that passage for anyone looking in and as a reminder of what the person behind the eyes has witnessed in the course of their life. The one who observes the eyes of age, who recognises them as different enough from their own to take note of them, marks a gap in experience, an awareness and an anticipation of what the other knows and of what the self might yet discover. Walker’s song gives agency to Bojangles, far more so than the old people described in John Prine’s ‘Hello in There’, a song quoted in the ages of this book and which, on reflection, does not provide the empathetic reading of later life that I once thought I heard in it. Walker’s singer-songwriter-storyteller recognises himself (his present down-and-out self and his future self) in his old cell mate and realises that he too may come to know what it is to know life from the other side of the eyes of age. It’s Walker, too, who gives Bojangles a legacy in this popular song that has been performed by countless later singers, from Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr to Nina Simone and Whitney Houston.
I would often think of that line about the eyes of age when I thought of Ralph Stanley, and I’d supplement it with a similar term: ‘the voice of age’. Stanley wasn’t the first artist to set me to thinking about the late voice, but once I started to develop the ideas into a book project I knew that I wanted to try and write about him. For the reasons I explain in Chapter 2, Stanley epitomised for me, as for many others, an ancient voice in terms of timbre, texture and text, bringing a chilling temporality to both the act and the content of sung words, the enunciation and the enunciated. To witness Stanley singing was to witness age itself, and with it the passage of a life spent communicating messages that were even older than the man expressing them. The voice itself seemed older than its owner, something acknowledged by Stanley himself when he joked, in his eighties, that he would be able to catch up with his voice if he were given a couple more decades. To do that, of course, the voice would have to stay still, to not change. But that was part of what I wanted to try and get at in The Late Voice; that the voice might change with age, but that lateness might also already reside within it, even from our earliest days. Lateness was not only about later stages of life, but also about an experience of life, or rather a series of experiences that could be recognised at flashpoint moments throughout the life course.
If lateness was to be only partly about later life, it was also only ever partly to be about the lateness of the recently departed. When The Late Voice went to press in 2015, I had been researching and writing about late voices that, in the case of all but one of my major case studies, belonged to still living singers. Even when I did consider lateness in relation to the recently lost, I was mainly working with the idea that recorded voices are always dead voices, temporarily reanimated in playback. Now, however, at the start of 2017, I write with the knowledge that two of the major case studies – Ralph Stanley and Leonard Cohen – have died since the publication of the hardback edition in October 2015. 2016 also saw the deaths of Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, two artists whose work deeply informed my thinking about the late voice, even if they are only mentioned relatively briefly in the book’s pages. These were only four names among many more musicians who died in 2016, a phenomenon that became increasingly discussed in the media as the year wore on. From David Bowie’s passing in January to George Michael’s in December, it seemed as if each week brought another high-profile obituary, leading to numerous end-of-year reviews under headlines such as ‘The Year the Music Died’.
The attention given to musicians who died in 2016 is notable for many reasons, but in terms of its relevance to The Late Voice I was interested not only because of the loss of some of those I had written about, but also because the voices of those who reacted to the many losses that year – whether in professional media outlets or on social media – reinforced for me the sense in which music and musicians act as conduits to understandings of time, age and experience. While it may be a commonplace to talk of music, and especially the kind of popular songs I tend to discuss, as ‘the soundtrack to our lives’, the ways in which those soundtracks reflect, challenge and meld with our lived experience still deserve further philosophical exploration. Many of the responses I read in the wake of the lost musicians of 2016 brought this home to me in narratives whose eloquence, emotion, honesty and sense of collective connection were often overwhelming. In telling the stories of what their favourite musicians had meant to them, thousands of people went beyond the copy and paste hackwork of celebrity biography to trace instead the arcs of their own lives. In 2016, pop’s audience wrote its autobiography like never before.
As for the recently-deceased who make an appearance in this book, their passing does not fundamentally alter what I wanted to say about them originally, though the use the of present tense in the chapters that follow may occasionally seem strange. Death has brought to a close some of the narratives left open in the text, though of course there are still new narratives to add to these artists and their music, new discoveries to be made and new life experiences to be soundtracked by the work they left behind. I offer here a few additional facts and thoughts to supplement the stories told in the book.
Ralph Stanley died on 23 June 2016 at the age of 89. In the final footnote to Chapter 2, I note an announcement given in 2013 that Stanley was to embark on a ‘farewell tour’ that would run until December 2014. Evidently, retirement did not suit the veteran bluegrass musician and in 2015 further concert dates were announced running into 2016. In the last two years of his life Stanley received an honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Yale University (his second honorary degree – he had been known as ‘Dr Ralph’ since receiving his first from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976) and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. An addition to the extensive Stanley discography also arrived in 2015 in the form of a series of solo songs and duets (with artists including Elvis Costello, Del McCoury, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Robert Plant, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Lee Ann Womack) under the appropriate, if inevitable, title of Man of Constant Sorrow. Against these foils, Dr Ralph sounded, as ever, like the voice of age.
Leonard Cohen died on 7 November 2016 at the age of 82. He had recently released the album You Want It Darker, which, as with so much of his work, dwelled on themes of love, mortality and religion. If he sounded even older and more broken on this record, it was no doubt due to the illness he had endured while making it. Listening to the title track, particularly the parts where Cohen sings ‘hineni hineni’, I developed the fancy that perhaps the singer would continue to live until his voice became so deep it could no longer be perceived by humans. Cohen would disappear into the depths of his own voice. In the end that wasn’t to be, but he got a lot of the way there. Cohen always sounded older than his years, even when, early in his career, the only way he sounded was through the pages of his poetry and prose. Making the move to music in the late 1960s, he was notably older than many of his peers in the singer-songwriter world. He became uniquely gifted at channelling that maturity into songs that showed that wisdom has a place in everyday culture, that lives lived can be lives shared through the medium of popular song. As listeners, we believed him because he seemed so genuine, so human, so attuned to the dialectic of joy and melancholy that constitutes the human experience. When I started to think about trying to communicate my ideas about late voice in book form, I knew I would have to include Cohen. In the end, I decided to place him alongside Frank Sinatra, a connection that worked in my mind but one which I’m not sure others would feel comfortable with. The results can be found in this book and the connection between the poet and the crooner still works for me, though I find myself wondering whether I should have given Cohen a chapter to himself. There is certainly much more to be said about his particular form of lateness.
Guy Clark died on 17 May 2016 at the age of 74. He lived long enough to be able to ‘run his fingers through seventy years of living’, as he so memorably wrote of the old-timer memorialised in his song ‘Desperados Waiting for the Train’. That song, like Walker’s ‘Mr Bojangles’, showed an ability to make connections between youth and old age and to offer the kind of empathetic maturity and anticipated experience that I refer to in the pages of this book as ‘early late voice’ (Walker, appropriately, wrote the liner notes for Clark’s first album and helped to popularise some of his songs). Clark was a fabulous songwriter – for me, one of the very best – and a great singer and guitarist to boot. His writing, singing and playing voices came together in a united front suited brilliantly to the soundtracking of lives, his and those of others. His work sounded forever attuned to the ways that time, age and experience are written into the bodies, words and actions of the people we meet along the way, including those seemingly stable, but really ever-changing selves we see in the mirror, what Proust called that ‘sequence of selves which die one after another’.
Merle Haggard died on 6 April 2016 at the age of 79. In a year already rife with notable deaths in the music industry, I felt this one deeply, for reasons both objective and subjective. Objectively, Haggard was a colossal figure in country music, as a singer, songwriter, hitmaker and soundmaker (by which I mean there is particular country sound that is distinctive to him and those who’ve been influenced by him). Subjectively, I’d been a fan of Haggard’s music for around two and a half decades, with a steady rise in my appreciation of his work during that time. But adding to these reasons, and perhaps combining them, Haggard had played an important role in my work as an academic and writer, and I was aware that I hadn’t yet managed to repay the debt I owe him by writing about him properly. I’d wanted to do so for many years. I still have extensive notes filed in various places about him and his music that remain undeveloped, waiting for their ideal opportunity. When embarking on writing The Late Voice, I thought I’d finally get around to writing about him, for if anyone fitted the bill of a late voice singer-songwriter, it was Haggard. And indeed, my original plan for the book contained a chapter on country music that aimed to discuss Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. It was always going to be a crowded, and hence potentially lengthy, chapter and perhaps that’s why I felt I had to abandon it as the book took shape and I started to worry about cohesion and word count.
But perhaps there were other reasons. Perhaps, even though I continue to deny, against the claims by those who place anti-intellectualism amongst the primary responses to artistic creation, that studying the things you love somehow spoils them, even though I have never believed this, I still have found it difficult to turn that study into writing that communicates what I have heard, learned and felt when listening across the years to particular artists. It wasn’t until The Late Voice that I attempted to write about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two artists who have provided my life’s soundtrack since I first started to comprehend, in my late teens, what I later came to refer to as ‘anticipated experience’. What I ended up writing about them barely scratches the surface of what I want to say, but it’s a start at least. The same goes for Van Morrison, whose work I have started to explore in writing only very recently, since the publication of The Late Voice. I still long for, but simultaneously dread, the time I finally try to get down at length what Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have meant to me over the years, what they continue to mean to me.
With Haggard, though, it should have been a bit easier. I had the notes and I had written a little about him before. When I decided to write my Masters thesis on country music and hip hop, I focussed my account on place, race, experience and authenticity; Haggard was one of my main country examples and a major influence on the work more generally. I listened closely to the Legacy CD reissue of his 1981 album Big City and was also engrossed in his then-recent album for the Anti label, If I Could Only Fly. Songs from these albums became my main examples, songs such as ‘My Favorite Memory’, ‘Big City’, ‘Are the Good Times Really Over’, ‘Wishing All These Old Things Were New’, ‘If I Could Only Fly’, ‘Bareback’, ‘Leavin’s Getting Harder’ and ‘Thanks To Uncle John’. Some of the songs were Haggard originals and some, such as his version of Blaze Foley’s ‘If I Could Only Fly’, were brilliant takes on the work of other fascinating singer-songwriters.
As news of Haggard’s passing was spreading around the internet, Noah Berlatsky wrote an excellent assessment of If Could Only Fly for The Guardian, focussing in particular on the album’s title track and how this late, sparse version of Foley’s song eclipsed earlier versions (Haggard had been performing it since at least the mid-80s). Where earlier renditions proved that Haggard was more than capable of mastering the song, the 2000 version, for Berlatsky, ‘feels as though the grief is clotting around him, and he’s trying to dig out’. I agree with Berlatsky’s assessment of an album that was so central to my early attempts to write about popular music as an academic. But, for me, the album was also an invitation, at the height of the critical obsession with ‘alt. country’, to take a retrospective look at Haggard’s career and venture into areas of country music that I, along with other fans of alternative or progressive country, had been avoiding for various reasons. The most obvious of these was a lingering sense of unease about some of Haggard’s more notorious material, such as ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me’. I already knew there was more to Haggard than this and had done since at least the purchase of my first Haggard album, Serving 190 Proof. As has often happened in my record -buying career, I hadn’t started with the definitive work but with what was available one day when, intrigued at a market stall or car boot sale, I’d taken a plunge on an artist I’d heard of but whose work I didn’t know well. As it goes, Serving 190 Proof wasn’t a bad place to start at all, especially as an introduction to Haggard’s late voice. The opening trio of ‘Footlights’, ‘Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)’ and ‘Heaven Was a Drink of Wine’ are fine examples of Haggard’s more melancholy, even self-pitying, side; all contain great lines and vocal performances.
I’d had a generally overlooked but fascinating album as my introduction to Haggard, back around the time I was first getting into Willie Nelson and the 1970s progressive country artists. Later, as I wanted to delve deeper, there was still my resistance to ‘Okie’ and ‘Fightin’ Side’ to get over. I’m not sure I ever did get over that – and I still tend to avoid playing those songs – but I came to realise that there was so much more to Haggard’s story and to his songwriting. I also realised that those songs, regardless of what I might personally think of them, had to be part of that story and could, as in David Cantwell’s masterful account in Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, be convincingly placed into historical, cultural and personal contexts. But by then those songs had started to stop mattering to me as I discovered the gems to be found across Haggard’s massive back catalogue. At some point during the research for The Late Voice, Haggard overtook Neil Young to become the most represented artist in my record collection. I have a silly amount of Haggard albums, yet they all seem essential, with each album containing at least a few masterful, earcatching examples of songwriting or revelatory versions of other people’s songs.
Pretty high on the list for me would be one of the many duets Haggard recorded with his running mate Willie Nelson, a leisurely, beautifully paced version of David Lynn Jones’s ‘When Times Were Good’ which the pair included on their 1987 album Seashores of Old Mexico (an album that also includes their duet of ‘If I could Only Fly’). It’s a critically unloved album, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it, and ‘When Times Were Good’ is one of the main reasons. Nelson starts the song wonderfully, with a stark vocal accompanied by minimal guitar. He sets the pace and manages the dramatic development as the band instrumentation gradually builds the song towards a chorus which Nelson attacks in his highest, lonesomest register. For me, though, the standout has always been the moment more than three and a half minutes into the song when, following a relaxed instrumental break, Haggard’s voice takes up the narrative. In two drawn-out lines – ‘There’s a Golden Eagle rollin’ out of Memphis / And a country singer still lost between the lines’ – we get to ride the rolling slopes of Haggard’s voice, its breaking highs and creaking lows, the moments where the voice dips or drops out momentarily, just enough of a catch in the throat for us to get the sense of weariness the singer is carrying, his almost paralysing burden of memory, loss and nostalgia.
I’ve tried and failed to write about Haggard on a number of occasions and he only makes very fleeting appearances in the main body of this book. Even the thoughts gathered in this new preface are as much thoughts about me as they are about Haggard or the other musicians I mention. I’ve been driven once more by my reaction to musicians whose work has moved me and has invited me to supplement my listening with attempts to write about what I have loved and learned, even if that means occasionally losing my way through the corridors of memory. But perhaps that’s what our connection with our favourite musicians always brings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves through what we feel they’ve taught us. That was true of the collective autobiography that accompanied the loss of all those musicians in 2016, and I hope it is true of this book. The Late Voice was written as a way of formalising some of those lessons we learn from popular music. It was also written as a celebration of the living spirit of that music and of the living artists in whose eyes and voices of age we become aware of our changing selves.