The Late Voice

The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, October 2015)

Popular music artists, as performers in the public eye, offer a privileged site for the witnessing and analysis of ageing and its mediation. The Late Voice undertakes such an analysis by considering issues of time, memory, innocence and experience in modern Anglophone popular song and the use by singers and songwriters of a ‘late voice’. Lateness here refers to five primary issues: chronology (the stage in an artist’s career); the vocal act (the ability to convincingly portray experience); afterlife (posthumous careers made possible by recorded sound); retrospection (how voices ‘look back’ or anticipate looking back); and the writing of age, experience, lateness and loss into song texts.

There has been recent growth in research on ageing and the experience of later stages of life, focussing on physical health, lifestyle and psychology, with work in the latter field intersecting with the field of memory studies. The Late Voice seeks to connect age, experience and lateness with particular performers and performance traditions via the identification and analysis of a late voice in singers and songwriters of mid-late twentieth century popular music.


Chapter 1: Time, Age, Experience and Voice
Chapter 2: ‘Won’t You Spare Me Over till Another Year?’: Ralph Stanley’s Late Voice
Chapter 3: September of My Years: Age and Experience in the Work of Frank Sinatra and Leonard Cohen
Chapter 4: Time Out of Mind: Bob Dylan, Age and Those Same Distant Places
Chapter 5: Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and the Innocence and Experience of the Singer-Songwriter
Conclusion: Late Thoughts


“Through a series of illuminating case studies of particular singers, Richard Elliott shows how age, memory, temporal distance and loss are displayed in vocal quality as well as lyrical content. This is an original book: theoretically informed, and full of insight into the process of assimilating and evaluating what time, age and experience bring to us, it breaks new ground in studies of popular music, and deserves to be widely read.” ―Michael Pickering, Professor of Media and Cultural Analysis, Loughborough University, UK

“Engagingly written, carefully thought through, and characterised by exemplary scholarship, Richard Elliott’s book navigates with great elegance some complex theoretical waters. Through a selection of rich case studies, Elliott offers a powerful contribution to a growing body of work on ageing, nostalgia, and memory, particularly in relation to music.” ―Freya Jarman, Senior Lecturer, Department of Music, University of Liverpool, UK

“This thoughtful intervention to the interdisciplinary area of popular music and ageing brings sustained critical attention to the aesthetic concerns of the ‘late voice’ by offering a range of distinctive case studies of singers, songwriters and songs. The result is an impressive synthesis of theory and analysis that bridges popular music studies and traditional musicology as an approach to understand music, ageing and experience.” ―Ros Jennings, Director of the Research Centre for Women, Ageing and Media, University of Gloucestershire, UK

Bloomsbury page for The Late Voice.

Preface to the 2017 Paperback Edition: ‘Late Thoughts on Late Singers’

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 deserves 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.


Does some story link one sound to another? – Italo Calvino


Introducing her performance of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ on the album Black Gold (1970), Nina Simone extends the question laid out in the song’s title and refrain by adding further questions: ‘What is this thing called time? . . . What does it do? . . . Is it a thing?’[1] Of the many things that time confirms for us, one is that, despite the remarkable endeavours of philosophy, art and science, we are only partially closer to solving the mysteries of time than those forebears who first meditated on them at length. Even to note this is to fall into the time-worn path laid out by other introductions to the topic. Paul Ricoeur, for example, begins his classic three-volume Time and Narrative with a direct question from Augustine’s Confessions – ‘What, then, is time?’ – and devotes his first chapter to Augustine’s exploration of the experience of time, before going on to connect it with Aristotle’s theory of plot.[2] Augustine’s question appears again in Eva Hoffman’s book Time, at the start of a chapter on ‘Time and the Mind’; here, it is immediately coupled with Augustine’s own response: ‘If no man ask me the question, I know; but if I pretend to explicate it to anybody, I know it not.’[3] By placing this reference at the start of my own exploration, I wish to highlight the perennial importance of mental time, the human attempt to come to terms with temporal experience. Hoffman distinguishes between time as connected to the body, to the mind and to culture, while recognising the important interconnection of all these aspects. Reflecting on the first of these, she writes that ‘to be alive is to feel the passage of time, and to have time working through us in every cell, nerve ending and organ, as it takes us through its paces and plays in our bodies its mortal, vital tune’.[4] The metaphor of the tune is an apt one for my own study and I wish to retain this idea of the body as an instrument on which, and through which, the work of time, age and experience can be heard. As we pass through time and space – to put a more active stance on what we may think we are doing – so time passes through us, leaving its marks on us. We experience this passage, as Hoffman says, in all aspects of our biology. But it is as a mental exercise that we attempt to stop time, to reflect upon it. As Hoffman notes, ‘If the propositions of the phenomenologists – Husserl, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger – still have resonance for us today, it is because they tried to analyse perceptions of time as a function of consciousness and subjectivity, rather than as an absolute, objective reality.’[5]

Mental time can be thought of, as Augustine suggested long ago, as ‘expectation, attention and memory’. The future passes through the present into the past, as in Augustine’s famous example of the recitation of a verse:

Suppose that I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from the province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished my recitation and it has passed into the province of memory.
What is true of the whole psalm is also true of the parts and of each syllable. It is true of any longer action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man’s whole life, of which all his actions are parts. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which each man’s life is a part.[6]


That Augustine uses the examples of recitation and resonance makes appropriate the connection, if not the strict application, of his theories to music. Other thinkers have been drawn to similar analogies, such as when Husserl uses melody as an example of retention and protention, his way of explaining the flow of time through the present. For philosophers of time, there are important differences and disagreements to be highlighted in the theories of Augustine, Husserl and others, though it is not the purpose of this book to engage in those debates, nor to pick a ‘winning’ theory to apply to popular songs. Nor is the experience of music as time passing a primary concern here, though I do believe that an awareness of this possibility should be maintained. What can be done with a melody, and hence what can be done with time, are certainly important aspects of musical affect. Singers can play tricks with our expectations and use vocal art to alter our sense of time. Examples might include the use of tempo rubato (‘stolen time’), rhythm and vocal phrasing, all of which affect our sense of the perception of time by opening up a long present of expectation and surprise, a dialectic engagement with song. As Philip Ward writes of Sandy Denny’s vocal art, her ‘rubato elongation of a line seems to make time stand still’.[7]

Songs pass through us from future into past. Like Augustine’s recited verse, they are, in one sense, fixed, bounded and knowable objects. But they are also, to adopt something closer to a Husserlian approach, examples of the open, infinite future of possible time; cloud-like they are there ahead of us and pass through us (and the present) into the past. Once they have passed, they are not simply contained in some locker room of the mind, but rather, in order to still exist, they must be replayed and pass through us again. This passing is both a process of continual loss and the promise of something regained; as such, it can be a cause of consternation and anxiety. Perhaps the desire to fix time has lain behind the many attempts to explain it, whether poetically or scientifically (or both, as in the precise, searching lines of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, to which I’ll return below). The fantasy that one can fix time, or understand it as being motionless, recurs in various logical explanations from Zeno’s famous paradoxes, through Newton’s observations on time, space and motion to Russell’s philosophical treatises and beyond. In a reflection on the passage of time and the experience of ageing, Jean Améry argues that such logical attempts to fix time are of little help when contemplating its ceaseless, unidirectional flow:

Time has passed, flowed by, rolled on, blown away, and we pass with it . . . like smoke in a strong wind. We ask ourselves what time might actually be, about which we say that everything glides and runs by with it – ask ourselves with a tenacious naïveté that borders on total ridiculousness, and then are taught by those thinkers who are so adroit in logical play that the question, when asked in such a banal form, is deceptive. . . . Answers exist to many questions about time, and sufficiently sharp and well-trained thinkers have tried to find them. But what they’ve come away with has little to do with our concerns.[8]

Jean Améry

For Améry, ‘logical play . . . has little to do’ with his concerns because his concerns are with the inevitability of ageing and the end of life. To stare at mortality in the stark light of this inevitability, which is what Améry wishes to do, is to find all other explanations of time – logical, illogical or paradoxical – irrelevant.

Music can be a form of escape from the realities of time or it may invite us to reflect on mortality and inevitability. The singer-songwriter Guy Clark plays on the notion of time as escape on his second album Texas Cookin’ (1976), the back sleeve of which contains the following message for the listener: ‘Once upon a good time we got together and made a record of ourselves having a good time making a record – this is it.’ The album’s fourth track, ‘It’s About Time’, contains more such playfully reflexive lines, describing tunes that drift through halls ‘trying to put a stop to clocks on the wall’ and a record player that ‘fakes it’ in order for a couple to ‘keep time’ with each other by dancing. ‘It’s only time’, sings Clark, ‘And only time will tell.’[9] But even without this lyrical reflexivity, music can be understood to be taking us way from time, or putting us in a different configuration of time. Music, in Simon Frith’s formulation, ‘enables us to experience time aesthetically, intellectually, and physically in new ways. . . . [It] allows us to stop time, while we consider how it passes’.[10]

Music may be seen as a model of passing time but it is also a removal from everyday time, in which time may even be retrospectively experienced as having stood still. As Paul Virilio notes, ‘At a concert, when the musical motor shuts off, not only is there a liberating violence of ovations and handclapping but also a thunderstorm of sneezing, coughing, scraping of feet – as if everyone suddenly reacquired possession of his own body.’[11] Such experiences might leave one legitimately wondering just where the time went, though it should perhaps be noted that this is only likely to occur at a performance in which one is fully engaged. We have surely all experienced concerts in which we find ourselves bored and in which time suddenly seems to drag; when this occurs, one can become all too aware of the body as one shifts uneasily in one’s seat or, as is more likely in a popular music context, from one foot to another. For the drift to work, we require an engagement over time such that we lose track of time. However, while the experience of listening to music understandably provides a typical example, such moments of contemplative loss can come upon us in many other situations. Sylviane Agacinski connects the examples of a gazer on the shore and a moviegoer:

The one whose eyes follow the flight of a gull over the sea adopts the temporality of that flight; his time becomes the gull’s time. The stroller’s idleness is similar to the idleness ofsomeone at a play or a movie. Each of them yields to the rhythm of a movement that is not their own. In forgetting his own movement, and thus his own time, the stroller embraces the time of things. But the gull’s time is not the departing boat’s time, or the rock’s time emerging from the waves, or the child’s time playing on the beach. In the midst of a world that passes at such different speeds, the contemplative observer loses time. He no longer has his own time, and he feels the absence of absolute temporality. When we leave a movie theater, we also leave the film, and its temporality that our thoughts had so intimately embraced, to rediscover our own time and our own life. For an instant, we remain suspended between two times.[12]

Sylviane Agacinski

That Agacinski can provide a rich variety of temporal experiences without once mentioning music or listening serves as a reminder that music, while often presented as the ultimate art of time rather than space, is not unique in its focus on temporality. Casting our eyes over a painting or sculpture is a temporal as much as a spatial experience, not only in that it takes us time to take it all in, but also in that we may discern a narrative of some kind being communicated to us in the artwork, one that, like all narratives, unfolds over time. So too with reading, as Michel de Certeau highlights:

[S]ince he is incapable of stockpiling (unless he writes or records), the reader cannot protect himself from the erosion of time (while reading, he forgets himself and he forgets what he has read) unless he buys the object (book, image) which is no more than a substitute (the spoor or promise) of moments ‘lost’ in reading.[13]

Michel de Certeau

Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer-songwriter whose work I discuss later in this book, makes a distinction between poems and songs by saying that, whereas one can linger over a poem because of its spatial representation, reading backwards if necessary, one experiences the song as a unidirectional force in which it is impossible to go back in time. This is certainly true, and even if one attempts a thought experiment in which a combination of rewinding and replaying is made analogous to the processes of reading backwards or jumping across the space of the poem, there is a sense that the musical work falls apart more obviously during such processes. At the same time, we should recall the role of poetry as a spoken, recited or chanted medium, which also prevents such lingering, and music as a temporal flow made spatial in the process of notation or sonic visualisation. The cutting, splicing, sampling and repetition of the musical text by producers, hip hop artists and other kinds of remixers and remasterers rely on the notion of an analysis every bit as spatial as that of poetic exegesis. We might think of songs as poems voiced (and hence timed) and of poems as speech made spatial; both processes recognise a dynamic interaction of time and space.

Then there is representation. I am as interested in the ways in which texts, as well as being temporal processes – things that take time – also take time as their theme, as in the Sandy Denny and Guy Clark songs quoted earlier. Where any sentence or melody would do for a Husserlian account of temporal flow, I am interested in the signifying power, in the semantics of what is delivered in that flow. To take an example from the world of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a work devoted to the contemplation of time, particularly in its opening poem ‘Burnt Norton’. The poem contains numerous lines on the temporal flow of words and music, presenting itself as a philosophical treatise on the experience of passing time, time past and – in the religious preoccupations that come to dominate the Four Quartets – time to come. As a work of poetry, it is also an example of aesthetic experience and, if the distinction is necessary, the aestheticisation of experience. The famous opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’, in which we read that ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past’, strike the keynote of the poem not only in the preoccupation with the words ‘time’, ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’ but also in the establishment of a twisting, riddling style that will continue through the poem. This twisting represents both the restlessness and indecision of the mind when faced with ‘big issues’ and the slippery nature of fixing the experience of temporal flow, echoing attempts across the centuries to account for such experience. The rest of the poem depicts a process of wandering and looking for stillness: ‘the still point of the turning world’. Eliot uses speech and music as examples of things which will not stay still, just as memory will not stay still. There is a dialectic process at play: ‘Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.’[14] And, without the dance, there would be no desire for the still point, for the point in time and space where one might halt the dance for long enough to contemplate it fully. The Four Quartets constantly contrast the transient with the eternal, the latter understood via Eliot’s religious beliefs. In doing so they provide an unexpected but interesting comparison with the religiously inflected old-time songs discussed in the next chapter, which often contrast the ‘short life of trouble’ with the eternal hereafter.[15] More pertinently for the general points I wish to make here, the poems provide an explicit example of the ways in which the contemplation of time can be represented in a form which, as Eliot shows via constant linguistic play and reference to language’s incapacity to fix time, is itself subject to time.

Four Quartets highlights contemplative time, in that the poet takes a significant amount of time to get to grips with time and asks of his readers that we also take time with the poem: time to read it in the first place (it is quite long) and time to return to it, to dwell on its layers of meaning. It is also a visual device and so we are invited to let our gazes drift across the flight of words, lines and blank space, a process which opens yet another experience of time. We might choose to read the poem aloud, which will take a different amount of time again and will connect us to the type of experience essayed by Augustine in his attempt to delineate temporal flow. Eliot provided his own recording of the poem, released as a long-playing record in the 1950s, thereby fixing a particular time to the poem’s duration. In his accompanying liner note, he claims no definitive authority in his delivery, noting that ‘the poem, if it is of any depth and complexity, will have meanings in it concealed from the author; and should be capable of being read in many ways, and with a variety of emotional emphases’.[16] Different emotional emphases will map on to different temporal experiences, one of the themes of the poem itself. For the listener, there is also the experience of listening to Eliot’s voice and to note, beyond its now-dated pronunciation and upper-class tones, a calmness or stillness that, again, mirrors the poetic themes. We come to realise once more that the poem and the poet are still points of the turning world and that we, as listeners, are also still points. Furthermore, with the medium of sound recording now in play, we can recall the poem’s preoccupation with capturing ‘the dance’ of word, music and time and, from a playback perspective, posit the stylus on the vinyl record as another still point of a turning world.[17]

The passing of time is rendered in numerous ways in the Four Quartets, from ‘scientific’ observation to recurring references to the passing of days, months and seasons. Diurnal and seasonal tropes are deployed via a dialectical relationship between ‘plenitude’ and ‘vacancy’ in Eliot’s work, as they are in the work of numerous artists. Such representations are frequently utilised in songs, which abound with the ticking of clocks, the passing of days and nights, months and seasons, years, the feeling of time as both arrow and cycle. This has long been explicit in folk song, where songs are often about the seasons as well as being traditionally used to reflect the coming or passing of times of year. The English folk singer and writer Bob Copper sums this up in the title of one of his memoirs, A Song for Every Season, in which he outlines the year as experienced in the Sussex countryside and weaves in seasonal songs and reminiscences of his youth.[18] Time is narrated in various ways in songs, including desire and wishes for the future, pressing needs of the present and haunting, nostalgic or painful memories of the past. As with the folk song tradition, there are often telling associations of time to seasons, for example in Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Circle Game’ or Frank Sinatra’s ‘September of My Years’ (both discussed later in this book).

Keith Negus pursues a similar process of bringing temporal flow and content together. He suggests that most popular songs can be understood as being about time, as a result of being forms of narrative.[19] I would agree with this and go further by saying that most popular songs can be understood as communicating time, age and experience to listeners even when they do not take these themes as their subject matter. Nevertheless, as Negus shows by selecting the Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ as an example of his theories, there are certain songs that invite particular reflection on these aspects. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ presents a lyrical world in which the temporal reference of the song’s title (and refrain), as both an appropriate time for contemplation and a moment in a diurnal cycle, is underlined by contemplative and recurring elements in the music. My own example of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ can be interpreted in a similar manner, and Nina Simone’s version of it even more so given its additional framing context of reflection from a particular point in the life course.

If seasonal and diurnal cycles offer one ubiquitous form of temporal representation, chronological time – whether in the form of history, biography or process – has also been a mainstay of song lyrics. As well as songs that imply or metaphorise the passing of time, there are others that take time as their main subject. This may be in combination with diurnal and seasonal references, as with ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, or it may be as a meditation on the gap opened up by time’s passage, as in Willie Nelson’s ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’. It may be focusing on a particular time of life, as in Neil Young’s ‘Comes a Time’. With Bob Dylan, in whose work the word ‘time’ constantly reappears,[20] temporal matters have been represented in many different ways: focus on the present for political messages in ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ ’; historical time as narrative in ‘With God on Our Side’; mythical fairy story reference in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; multidimensional, cross-cut narrative reference in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’; something passing too quickly in ‘Not Dark Yet’.

As is evident in much of the foregoing, to think about time is to tell stories about the passing of time, which in turn highlights the importance of narrative. As Paul Ricoeur writes, ‘time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative; narrative, in turn, is meaningful to the extent that it portrays the features of temporal experience’.[21] As we encounter a narrative, we engage in a temporal experience by following action, forming expectations, having them met or challenged or sensing an ending. Once a story or narrative structure becomes familiar the episodes are understood as leading to a certain ending, and from this repetition ‘a new quality of time emerges’, over which we feel we have some level of control.[22] Because most stories are variations on a model we learn while still in infancy, this sense of control is always with us. Because we recognise stories by the fact that they have a recognisable structure, we also have a sense of the whole in the part; we may not know the precise content of the ending, but we know that there is an ending and so it is always present:

[T]he repetition of a story, governed as a whole by its way of ending, constitutes an alternative to the representation of time as flowing from the past to the future, following the well-known metaphor of the ‘arrow of time.’ It is as though recollection inverted the so-called ‘natural’ order of time. In reading the ending in the beginning and the beginning in the ending, we also learn to read time itself backwards, as the recapitulation of the initial conditions of a course of action in its terminal consequences.[23]

Paul Ricoeur

In noting the primacy of narration, we may also be led to consider how any work of art is a representation of something, not merely an abstract or absolute thing. Even instrumental music, including so-called absolute music, is ‘about’ something and can therefore be seen as a form of narration; the definition of music as ‘organised sound’ recognises this via the notion of organisation. Negus, in his application of Ricoeur’s theories to popular songs, has made it clear that song narrative should be understood at a musical level as much as at a lyrical one. As is also evident from his work on the interpretation of songs, Negus understands these aspects of textual narrative as being in dynamic relation with other narratives, such as those we have made of our own life experience and those we become aware that relate to musicians’ lives, which may or may not be ‘explanations’ for the songs they write or perform but which get mixed up anyway in the dance of interpretation. We can note, then, that narrative is a key part of song lyrics, musical form (including voicing), the lives of singers and songwriters and the narratives that are told about them.[24]

It still remains questionable whether the relationship between all these aspects is clear. To take two brief examples connected to artists discussed in this book, Andy Gill, Kevin Odegard and Nigel Williamson have produced books about Bob Dylan and Neil Young which combine interpretation of song narrative with biographical narratives and accounts of the making of records. In highlighting the inventive use of narrative employed by Dylan on his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Gill and Odegard certainly identify one of the most notable features of Dylan’s writing at this point in his career.[25] Ultimately, however, one of the more important narratives for the authors to uncover seems to be the ‘back story’, the events in Dylan’s life (particularly his marriage) that led to the creation of this album. Williamson notes Neil Young’s use of narrative too, for example in the song ‘Misfits’ which Williamson presents as a way of narrating time shifts and even time travel.[26] At the same time Williamson spends much of the interpretive space in his book attempting to connect Young’s narratives to biographical correspondences. Reading the commentary, we are constantly moving between the narrative space of the song and that of its singer’s biography.[27] This is something I will return to at subsequent stages of the book; for now it is enough to note the multiplicity of narratives we may be aware of (or may be made aware of) in the ‘simple’ act of listening to a song.

Another type of narrative we might consider relates to music’s materiality, especially the artefact in which the sound is stored. In Chapter 3, I highlight the importance of the long-playing album as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra to present a persona conducive to the representation of time, age and experience. Similar points could be made for most of the artists I discuss here, partly due to the historical moments in which they emerged as artists and partly due to an ideology of the album that extends beyond its practicality as a storage or organisational format. Bob Dylan illustrates this when recalling the challenges he faced making his first album:

I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists and classical musicians made LPs, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LPs were like the force of gravity. They had covers, back and front, that you could stare at for hours.[28]

Bob Dylan

Physical forces are also at play on the recording itself, such as the fading or wiping of tape and the scratching or marking of LPs and CDs. This is something else which can be woven into the tapestry of narratives already mentioned. To take an evocative example from a fan comment on Joni Mitchell’s Facebook page, ‘I still listen to my old albums of her. Somehow, much more endearing because every little “hiss” and scratch represents part of my life. She always had a way of doing that to us, now didn’t she?’[29] Here we see the folding together of the oft-noted tendency for Joni Mitchell’s songs to soundtrack moments in listeners’ lives with the way in which the material object reflects the user’s repeated listening. Songs also weave narratives around objects, as in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘This Shirt’, Guy Clark’s ‘Randall Knife’ or Shel Silverstein’s ‘This Guitar is for Sale’. The last song presents an anthropomorphised instrument that is widely travelled but now worn and weary; on John Prine’s version, an extra layer of patina is added by the singer’s worn voice. In an era of pre-stressed furniture, clothes and instruments, age can be deceptive but there is no denying the effectiveness of such markers in suggesting historical narrative.[30]


As we have seen, the understanding of time as something that flows from future to past in an eternal present has been contrasted with attempts to stop, measure and rationalise time in a supposedly more objective fashion. Similar conceptions can be found with reflection on age. On the one hand, the attribution of age – whether of a person, a tree, a country or a universe – is, in an objective sense, a measurement of time and an attachment of time to things to make them meaningful to humans. Age in this sense is what Proust calls ‘embodied time’, an aspect of a person that is objectively perceived by others such that ‘people of no special perspicacity, seeing two men whom they do not know, both with black moustaches, or both clean-shaven, will say that these are two men, one of about twenty and the other of about forty years old’.[31] Age, like narrative, makes time human, or rather it helps us to understand that time, if it means anything, means in ways that can only be described as human. But wrapped up with this human understanding of age are a set of different understandings or feelings that manifest in subsets of the human race – whether at the level of a culture or an individual subject – in different ways. This becomes more evident when we move from noun to verb and consider ageing as a process which, as Mike Hepworth argues, ‘is not a straightforward linear trajectory towards inevitable physical, personal and social decline but a dynamic process of highly variable change: ageing is simultaneously a collective human condition and an individualized subjective experience’.[32] When we become aware (or choose to ignore) ourselves in the process of ageing, the sense of objective measurement becomes far more confused.

As noted earlier, the study of age and ageing has expanded in recent years, partly as a result of an ageing population and partly due to an awareness that age has persisted as something of an unexplored, unacknowledged and even taboo subject within the broader identity politics developed over the past century. In a recent study of what she calls ‘the pleasures and perils of ageing’, but which is essentially about the politics of ageing, Lynne Segal refers to ‘feminist constraints’ that kept age from the agenda of feminist politics in the 1970s.[33] As she and other activists in the Women’s Liberation Movement campaigned on a range of issues, they tended to take their youth for granted. Segal notes, however, that it was a feminist thinker, Simone de Beauvoir, who was writing at that time of the coming of age, albeit that this was not the aspect of her politics that was being disseminated most widely. More recently, age has featured extensively in literature related to health and well-being, though there has also been a growth in what has been termed ‘critical gerontology’, the study of age as social and cultural phenomenon rather than biological inevitability. This more politicised understanding of age and ageing has placed these subjects at the heart of identity politics, and age has now started to figure alongside the more familiar studies of race, class, gender and sexuality in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

As is no doubt clear from the use of ‘gerontology’, studies of age and ageing have predominantly focused on people in later life. This is understandable partly for reasons already mentioned – awareness of an ageing population, awareness that the ‘pleasures and perils’ of ageing have been neglected – and partly because a number of studies that have emerged in recent years have been undertaken as scholars take note of their own advancing age. In cultural studies, the discipline which first informed my academic interest in popular music, there has also been a recognition that the association between popular culture (and subculture) and youth was perhaps overdetermined and highly selective. Scholars such as Andrew Blaikie, Mike Featherstone and Andy Bennett have sought to address this imbalance by analysing cultural representations of later life and showing the rich variety of engagement with popular culture by ageing fans, while Ros Jennings, Abigail Gardner and others have additionally focused on creative production by older musicians.[34] In this book, I too am interested in the production, and to a certain extent the consumption, of music by older people. Nonetheless, as already noted, I am also interested in reflection on and representation of age at earlier stages in life too. In making this point, I return to the points about time and age as ongoing processes; as Mike Hepworth states, ageing should be thought of ‘not simply as a matter of chronology or biology but as a complex and potentially open-ended process of interaction between the body, self and society’.[35] Segal, while focusing mostly on age as an experience of later life, is also sensitive to this open-ended aspect: ‘Ageing is neither simply linear, not is it any single discrete process when, in our minds, we race around, moving seamlessly between childhood, old age and back again. There are ways in which we can, and we do, bridge different ages, psychically, all the time.’[36] Kathleen Woodward recognises this too but notes our tendency to think of age in binary terms: ‘Age is a subtle continuum, but we organize this continuum into “polar opposites”.’[37] This polarising of age is a process that occurs at various stages of the life course. Anyone who is old enough to have been on the receiving end of accusations by children and young people of being ‘old’ will be aware of the skewed reality and homogenising force of such youthful perceptions. Yet there is just as high a likelihood of older people making unbalanced assessments of the young, whether despite or because of their life experience. It can take a quite notable effort of will for either ‘side’ to concede ground to, and attempt to consider life as experienced by, the other. Those who show an ability to do so, whether young or old, are often seen as being in possession of valuable wisdom.

One might think that it would be possible to acquire a more balanced view from the perspective of middle age. In his reflective book on this time of life, Christopher Hamilton alludes to such a possibility, repeatedly highlighting the Janus-like perspective available to those in middle age. Ultimately, however, Hamilton presents this period as one in which the questioning of one’s place in the world, and in time, only increases. This is most obvious in the famous ‘midlife crisis’, the point at which one is supposed to realise that the dreams, plans or assumptions about life that one had gathered in one’s youth are unlikely to materialise in the imagined form. This experience may be positive, negative or numbing, or one may equally feel indifferent towards it. Hamilton suggests that we become ever more aware of the different voices at work within us and in our relationships with others, voices we learn to put on for others so that we can live in harmony with them: ‘These voices compete in us, and most of us spend a great deal of our lives trying to elevate one of them to the supreme voice, a voice that will drown out all the others, subdue them, remove them, so that we can become whole and complete.’[38] We also have a greater awareness of the complexities of life, of multiple moral, political, aesthetic and other perspectives available to us and which we have experienced. This may lead to a longing for stability – a still point in a turning world – though it could equally lead to a desire for fulfilment by adventure, distraction or some form of change. For Hamilton, ‘We all find it hard to live with the tensions between these different outlooks, even though – indeed, precisely because – we can be deeply attracted to them, depending on our mood, the weather, the books we are reading and the films we are seeing, our most recent or our deepest experiences, the period of life in which we happen to find ourselves, and so on.’[39] Middle age does not allow for a perfect balance because one can never know whether one may be afflicted by the burden of the past, prey to anxiety about the future, panic about the present, a combination of these feelings or, indeed, a sense of equanimity towards past, present and/or future. It is precisely because age is a continuum that there is never a perfect moment to find a balance. It is as impossible to stand outside of age as it is to make time stand still. There can be time for reflection, though, and this has led to the wealth of meditations available to us on time, age and experience.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, published in French in 1970 when its author was 62 years old, is an example of extended reflection, one that treats its subject with the thoroughness and seriousness it deserves. Following a first half in which Beauvoir focuses on the scientific, historical and social aspects of ‘the aged man as an object [described] from the outside’, she turns to the internal experience of ageing, ‘how he actually lives it’. Her approach, which is informative for my own study, is to accept that, although age is ‘just something that happens to people who become old, and this plurality of experiences cannot possibly be confined in a concept or even a notion’, we can still take readings and compare them, ‘try to isolate the constants and to find the reasons for the differences’.[40] Beauvoir looks to written accounts of age, recognising that they may not be representative of all humanity. By focusing on novelists, poets, essayists and other celebrities of the written word, she is wary of paying attention to ‘the privileged few’. Nevertheless, the insights gained from literature, because we find them insightful, are relevant to the lives of others.[41] Beauvoir’s first extensive exploration of the ‘being-in-the-world’ of age relates to ‘the discovery and assumption of old age’, processes which invariably catch the perceiving subject by surprise. This may entail the surprise of feeling older or younger than one is or of having a perception of one’s age that is in marked contrast to the objective truth and to how others perceive us. The result may also be a refusal to accept the symptoms of ageing when they are present or an anxiety about them when they are not. Beauvoir suggests that this aspect of the coming of age is different in adults than in children or adolescents:

Children and adolescents are of some particular age. The mass of prohibitions and duties to which they are subjected and the behaviour of others towards them do not allow them to forget it. When we are grown up we hardly think about our age any more: we feel that the notion does not apply to us; for it is one which assumes that we look back towards the past and draw a line under the total, whereas in fact we are reaching out towards the future, gliding on imperceptibly from day to day, from year to year. Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species: ‘Can I have become a different being while I still remain myself?’[42]

Simone de Beauvoir

Our tendency to think of age as something happening to others leads us to notice age in others before we notice it in ourselves. When we do perceive our own ageing, we often do so as a realisation that others see us as old(er) and we then transfer this perception to an othering of that part of ourselves that is old. As Beauvoir writes, ‘Since it is the Other within us who is old, it is natural that the revelation of our age should come to us from the outside.’[43] Beauvoir uses the example of Proust, who, in the final volume of his great novel, describes in painful but amusing detail a ‘masked ball’ in which his protagonist encounters friends and acquaintances he has not seen for many years. Initially perceiving the others as engaged in some kind of costume show in which they adopt different ages, he humorously describes the unpleasant aspects of their demeanour. With time he comes to realise that the only masks they are wearing are those of time and age and that the people he had once known had aged in reality but not in his mind. He then realises that the same is true for him and that he too has grown old:

So I, having lived from one day to the next since my childhood, and having also formed definitive impressions of myself and of others, became aware for the first time, as a result of the metamorphoses that had been produced in all these people, of all the time that had passed in their lives, an idea which overwhelmed me with the revelation that it had passed equally for me.[44]

Marcel Proust

Kathleen Woodward follows Beauvoir in choosing this scene to reflect on the ‘discontents’ of ageing. She reads Proust’s masked ball as an example of what she calls ‘the mirror stage of old age’, using the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage to show that the misrecognition of the self that one encounters in later life is ‘the inverse of’ that experienced in infancy. This process entails a separation of one’s ‘real self’ from one’s body: ‘We say that our real selves – that is, our youthful selves – are hidden inside our bodies. Our bodies are old, we are not.’[45] In Lacan’s formulation, the infant, recognising itself in the mirror, projects onto its mirror image a wholeness and mastery of the self that it in fact does not yet possess. Woodward argues that the mirror stage of old age reverses this process; the subject feels whole and in control of her body but perceives and projects the lack of control – the incomplete self – onto the mirror image.

The sense that, with age, one becomes more aware of time as something one carries within oneself, is evident in both Proust’s ‘embodied time’ and Eliot’s observation, in ‘Burnt Norton’, that ‘in my end is my beginning’. Jean Améry’s analysis of old age, a classic example of a polarisation of young and old, revolves around a similar idea. For Améry, the old have time within them and the young externalise time as space and world, something into which they can throw themselves or let themselves fall. ‘Those who believe they have what is called “time” in front of them’, he writes, ‘know that they are truly destined to step out into space, to externalize themselves. Those who have life within them, i.e., authentic time, have to be internally satisfied with the deceptive magic of memory’.[46] Norberto Bobbio, having distinguished biological age from ‘bureaucratic age’ (defined by the age at which one might be entitled to a pension) and chronological age, describes his own experience of ‘psychological or subjective age’:

Biologically, I started my old age from when I was approaching eighty years, but psychologically I have always considered myself to be a little old, even when I was young. While I felt older than my years when I was a youth, in later years I thought of myself as still young and continued to do so until a few years ago. Now I believe myself to be old in every sense of the word.[47]

Norberto Bobbio

Beauvoir makes similar observations, arguing that ‘It is because age is not experienced in the for-itself mode and because we do not have the same lucid knowledge of it that we have of the cogito that we can say we are old early in life or think ourselves young to the very end.’ She quotes Baudelaire’s sense of disquiet between his own subjectivity and the objective world in which he found himself: ‘I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old.’[48]

For popular music, one of the most obvious ways that age has made itself known is as a conflict between generations. To take one famous example from the 1960s, the Who’s song ‘My Generation’ presented singer Roger Daltrey barely able to contain his frustration with the older generation as he stuttered and almost swore his way to the era-defining proclamation ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ As rock music discovered the possibilities of longevity, a process from which most members of the Who were able to capitalise, such a birthmark could be seen as something of a burden. Little wonder, then, that John Strausbaugh decided to target the group in Rock ’Til You Drop, his extended attack on ‘colostomy rock’. For Strausbaugh, acts such as the Who and the Rolling Stones, although they remain immensely popular and attract new generations of fans, are betraying the rock music they helped fashion by treating the music as an exercise in nostalgia rather than as a challenge to the status quo: ‘Colostomy rock is not rebellion, it’s the antithesis of rebellion: it’s nostalgia . . . And nostalgia is the death of rock. We were supposed to die before we got old.’[49] As I have argued elsewhere, this is a rather narrow understanding of both the political possibilities of ‘the rock faithful’ and of the critical potentiality of nostalgia.[50] It is also an essentially romantic view of rock music, one that fixes rock to a time and an attitude and doesn’t allow for the inevitably twisted shapes that ageing subjects must adopt in trying to stay true to the events that formed them. It is not as if ageing rockers are entirely unaware of the potentially tricky situation they find themselves in, as the sixty-six-year-old Daltrey proved in a television appearance at the end of 2010. As he performed the Muddy Waters classic ‘Mannish Boy’ on Jools Holland’s annual New Year’s Eve Hootenanny show, there were all kinds of reasons why it shouldn’t have been inspiring to see an ageing white rock star delivering a seemingly too-faithful, unoriginal take on a now-clichéd blues song. Indeed, Daltrey appeared to be going through the motions, offering little more than what one might find served up by countless other acts – amateur and professional – across the country. As ‘Mannish Boy’ limped on, however, something more exciting started to happen. Daltrey started to emphasise the experiential nature of the lyric, the fact that it concerns a man looking back at his boyhood even as he asserts his maturity and experience. But Daltrey took it to further, humorously self-reflexive lengths as he sang about being an old man, one whose past experience included performing the song ‘My Generation’ and its famous assertion about dying before he got old. Daltrey folded that experience into the text of ‘Mannish Boy’ in a way that was not the least bit foolish, but which was, instead, compellingly, self-deprecatingly true. Ever the butt of jokes about rock, retirement and reunions, Daltrey seemed to be doing about the most honest thing he could do in that performance space by asserting his late voice.

In recent years it has become increasingly common to hear rock musicians discussing age and ageing. This is not surprising when we consider that those who came to public attention in the rock and pop boom of the 1960s – still the canonical era for popular music of the twentieth century, for better or worse – and who are still famous have reached an age where such matters are not likely to be overlooked (Strausbaugh’s critique being a notable, but far from isolated, example). Often the narratives presented are celebratory ones, as interviewers seek to find out how it feels to be a veteran in a cultural practice that was supposedly predicated against the idea of longevity. These questions are often ones that reflect back onto the artists’ fans, especially those that have aged with them. As Mick Jagger told a journalist back in 1993, ‘They want you to be like you were in 1969. They want you to, because otherwise their youth goes with you, you know.’[51] At the time Jagger was barely fifty years old and his band the Rolling Stones would continue performing in the following decades. Twenty years later, the Stones were the main act at Glastonbury, for years a barometer of youth culture but in recent years increasingly keen to host ‘heritage’ acts. Much of the press was positive, noting Jagger’s ability to recreate earlier glories and guitarist Keith Richards’s creaky vitality. The Stones have also been subject to a programme on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in which the members were interviewed to comment on the group’s fiftieth anniversary; during his interview, Jagger compares being in the group to ‘being a listed building’.[52]

While most of the discourse around ageing popular musicians has focused on whether or not senior stars can lay claim to youth (theirs or that of their audience), one of my concerns in this book is to consider how youth lay claim to age and experience convincingly. One way of approaching this would be to consider songs which explicitly deal with age, such as John Prine’s early compositions ‘Hello in There’ and ‘Angel from Montgomery.’ Both songs bucked the trend for post-Dylan 1970s singer-songwriters to write about their own lives (the school known as ‘confessional’ singer-songwriters) and instead presented imagined scenarios in which the protagonists are older people reflecting on their lives. ‘Hello in There’ imagines old age as a time of loneliness and vulnerability, where ‘all the news just repeats itself / like some forgotten dream’ and where ‘hollow ancient eyes’ long for human engagement. ‘Angel from Montgomery’ tells the story of similarly empty life, related by an ‘old woman’ whose ‘old man is another child who’s grown old’. To escape the humdrum relationship, she dreams of a rodeo cowboy who would take her away; no matter how she tries to hold on to the dream, however, ‘the years just flow by like a broken down dam’.[53] Another way of approaching young artists’ claim to age would be to explore the adoption by singers of vocal styles or musical genres that seem to confer age and experience upon them due to the cultural coding associated with them. In Prine’s case, his youth was belied not only by the maturity of his lyrical themes, but also by the adoption of a musical style (country-inflected folk music) and a singing style (heavily regionalised, ‘grainy’ and ‘untrained’) suited to the articulation of such themes. I will return to this idea in my discussions of Ralph Stanley in Chapter 2 and Bob Dylan in Chapter 4.

The artists I devote most time to in this book are ones who attained what I refer to as early lateness (in that they were able to convincingly articulate maturity through singing and/or writing while still young) but who are old enough to allow us to witness how this early lateness develops into a ‘real’ lateness. But it is worth briefly considering a contemporary artist who is still young and yet engaged with the representation of age and passing time, allowing us to realise that this process can be attached to many stages in the life course. In 2012 the American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift released the song ‘22’ as part of her fourth album Red. Over anthemically choppy guitar chords and ramrod-straight beats, the song extolled the virtues and the confusions of being a 22-year-old, reflecting Swift’s own experience as far as anyone could tell.[54] While the verses contained barbed comments on the kind of hipsters and ‘indie kids’ who might routinely dismiss Swift and her mostly teenage fanbase, the explosively rhythmic, cheerleader-like chorus celebrated a perfect (if messily perfect and messily privileged) stage of life. In the words of one reviewer, ‘“22” is all about trying to “forget about the deadlines” and embraces only the most sugary hooks available’, yet ‘[u]nderneath the heel-clicking positivity and shiny production sits the line “We’re happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way”, a rather stunning meditation on being in your early 20s that’s flicked off like a piece of pre-chorus lint’.[55] As it hymned the will to party, the song rang registers of inclusivity and exclusivity, individuality and community, at once an invitation to shared experience and a reminder that those outside the song’s immediate address could only look and listen with a sense of non-belonging. Not only was Swift singing about age and experience, but she was doing so while still young and with a remarkable sense of self-awareness. Even more impressive was the fact that she had already been doing this for a number of years, having gained considerable success with her first album, released in 2006 when she was 16. Prior to ‘22’ she had already hymned youthful experience to great effect, either through explicit references in songs such as ‘Fifteen’, ‘Dear John’ and ‘Place in This World’, or via more general depictions of girlishness, school, first loves, summer vacations and parents. Also notable was the way in which Swift had moved from identification with country music – a genre which has traditionally placed great emphasis on time, age, experience and nostalgia – towards a more clearly pop-centred approach seemingly aimed at a teen audience and focused on the transitory pleasures and pains of youth. Swift seems to offer a message relevant to people at many different life stages, that reflection on the passing of time is something with which we are always already engaged. There is a mixture of escapism and realism that inhabits a place we all need to go to at various points in our life. This is no doubt one of the reasons her work has found praise among a number of music critics and veteran songwriters.[56]


Like age, experience can be thought as a way of measuring and feeling time. When we speak of having so many years’ experience at working a job, speaking a language or living in a particular place, we are offering both a measurement of time and an authentication of our ability to do, speak or know; in such processes, time qualifies authority. As measurement, experience is presented as objective but perhaps we more frequently think of experience as being subjective and deeply felt, something that accrues inside us not so much as a measurement of ability but rather as a hardening of our being. Experience is who we are, who we have come to be. Lack of experience – which may or may not be ‘innocence’ – is not-yet-having-been, an incompleteness of the self, a hole yet to be filled. But, for its accrual to take place, experience also has to be immediate. In this sense, it is perception, consciousness, affect: how we take in the time and space in which we find ourselves. As perception, experience is how we become aware of time and feel time passing. As consciousness, at both private and public levels, experience is awareness of sensations both immediate and less immediate, of data bombarding us in the present or gathered over a period of time. Experience, like consciousness, is deeply entwined with memory. Walter Benjamin, who reminds us of this fact in many of his essays, was particularly interested in the relationship between Gedächtnis (usefully translated by Harry Zohn as ‘a gathering of unconscious data’) and Erinnerung (‘an isolating of individual “memories” per se’).[57] Thus we are able to remember things from our past that we might not have attached particular importance to at the time but which we find ourselves able (or unable) to focus on at a subsequent point in time. Another relationship Benjamin explores is that between Erfahrung (‘experience over time’) and Erlebnis (‘the isolated experience of the moment’).[58] Awareness gathered over time, thought of as experience and memory, can be seen, in Benjamin’s formulations, to produce consciousness.

These distinctions play a prominent role in Benjamin’s writing on Baudelaire and Proust, a connection I would like to use to move the consideration of experience from a very general one to the more specific field of aesthetic experience. I want to do so in order to think about how artistic statements – whether novels, plays, poems, painting, buildings or songs – can be understood as the passing on of information in such a way that it is embedded inside the perceiver of the statement, becoming part of the experience they feel they share with the artist. Benjamin is interested in the role of the story and the storyteller (a declining role as he sees it in the early twentieth century). In pursuing this interest he makes a distinction between the finding out of information from newspapers – a fragmentary, disconnected experience – and the learning of information in the form of a story:

A story does not aim to convey an event per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds the event in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the trace of the storyteller, much the way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand.[59]

Walter Benjamin

The art of the storyteller thus requires considerable skill and labour, and Benjamin is here thinking of Proust and ‘the effort it took to restore the figure of the storyteller to the current [Benjamin’s] generation’. Proust’s great novel, of course, revolved around the relationship between voluntary and involuntary memory. The latter was most memorably (but not only) encapsulated in the tasting of the madeleine cake that, dipped in tea, sends Proust’s narrator suddenly back to the lost time of his youth. Voluntary memory, meanwhile, reflects the labour necessary to reconstruct that lost time as an aesthetic experience communicable to others; not only communicable, in Benjamin’s terms, as ‘information’, but as a richly described poetic drama bearing the ‘trace’ of its narrator and – for they may or may not be the same – of Proust. Furthermore, the storyteller’s involuntary memory, says Benjamin, ‘bears the trace of the situation that engendered it; it is part of the inventory of the individual who is isolated in various ways. Where there is experience [Erfahrung] in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine in the memory [Gedächtnis] with material from the collective past’.[60]

Following Proust and Benjamin, I understand accumulated experience as a necessary prerequisite for making sense of, and making something out of, isolated experiences; at the same time, experience is nothing without those isolated experiences, whether we want to relive them or not.[61] Selection and control become important here and it is through controlling purposes – selection, evasion, elision, revision and so on – that we attempt to control the narrative of our experience. As Eva Hoffman writes, ‘it is tempting to see in the registration of memories, and their selection, a kind of neurological inventiveness, which, through a combination of stability and plasticity, composes the ongoing narrative or poem of our lives’.[62] Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering, while also describing the interaction of memory and experience as a kind of authorial self-fashioning, emphasise the act of editing and selecting: ‘the individual subject acts not only as an authorial self, continually scripting the story of a particular life, but also as sort of editor-in-chief of the memories made to matter and cohere in the preferred version of who we think we are’.[63] One way to regain control over time is to aestheticise it and while we may not all be as adept at Proust in producing from our lives an epic novel that repays endless revisiting, we constantly encounter the potential to do so, whether in our own conversational and storytelling skills or in our recognition of those of others. We can recognise control over brief periods of time (the length of a song, say) and over much longer periods (an era, a lifetime), just as we gradually learn to control longer periods of time in our everyday lives.

All music is experience and, as we saw with the discussion of time unfolding, music is an exemplary model of experiencing, which is why it has proved so popular as a model for theories of time across the centuries, whether in Augustine’s description of resonating sound and the recitation of psalms or in the work of twentieth-century novelists and phenomenologists. But if this were all that music were (and that would still be plenty), why would a significant number of songwriters write, singers sing and listeners listen to and reflect upon, a sense of time and experience that fell outside the moments of writing, singing and listening? It was those that do so that led me to thinking about the late voice in the first place and this is why, even though I find the interaction of experiences, experiencing and accumulated experience fascinating,[64] it is with the last category – accumulated experience – that I am mainly concerned. As with my preference for treating the representation of time over the temporal flow, at this preliminary exploration of the late voice, I am interested in the ways in which time, age and experience are represented both within songs and within the discourse that attends singers.

Time, age and experience are evental, by which I mean that they are understood in relation to events. Events unfold constantly, as television constantly reminds us: news programmes featuring ‘current events’; dramas in which ‘events occur in real time’; reality shows which feed the fantasy of a constant vigilance. But, because it is not possible to take in everything, we are inevitably selective in our positing of what makes for a significant event: in such a process, events inevitably become singular. This is clear by the way we mark time, age and experience with significant, singular markers such as birthdays, rites of passage and anniversaries. Our personal histories may not seem evental when compared with what is happening ‘in the world’ (i.e. to other people); indeed, they may seem like a drop in the ocean. But they are also larger than those other events because they are closer. One can feel distanced or alienated from a global historical or political event when compared to a change in one’s immediate circumstances, as well as the change we make as individuals to other individuals with whom we share time. This aspect of life is beautifully and movingly hymned in Iris DeMent’s song ‘My Life’, in which the singer, accompanied by a sad, aching piano melody, reflects on her place in the world. She sings from the perspective of a life ‘half the way travelled’, a classic moment for looking back. ‘My life’, she laments, ‘don’t count for nothing’; it is ‘a passing September that no one will recall’.[65] The chorus brings a different perspective, however, as she recalls the joy she has given to those around her – her mother, her lover, her friends. She ‘can make them feel better for a while’ and this, apparently, is enough. One of the ways in which she can make people feel better is by singing and playing to them, and this seems to be one of the main points (and strengths) of the song.

Because she has recorded songs such as this, DeMent can also make other people far from her immediate experience feel better too. This is an obvious point but one I want to underline because recorded music is often criticised for its potential to de- and re-contextualise experience or for its transference of that experience to the marketplace. While one has to take such criticisms seriously, there is also a necessity to question some of the assumptions on which they rest. In a generally excellent book on country music that focuses on such ‘authentic’ performers as Iris DeMent, Ralph Stanley, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Nicholas Dawidoff makes the following comparison between Garth Brooks (a ubiquitous ‘hat act’ at the time Dawidoff was writing his book) and the kinds of country artists the author admires:

Brooks delivers his lines in a voice that is certainly pleasant, but limited in range and not especially distinctive, The real problem is, I suppose, that his songs lack both the rough edges and the feel for pressing experience that you find in the singing of people like George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. Their lives really have been hard, something that’s obvious from their singing. With Brooks there is often the sense that he is aping something he saw somebody else try. . . . Brooks is a pop star masquerading as a country singer, a yuppie with a lariat.[66]

Nicholas Dawidoff

I have a certain amount of sympathy with this comparison, not least because I admire the singers that Dawidoff celebrates and can understand the desire to justify their importance. However, I also find it problematic, firstly because of the need – common to music journalism – to validate those one admires by denigrating those one does not; secondly, because the notion that the hard lives of the celebrated country artists are transparently evident in their voices seems incomplete. Can it really be so straightforward? I am not saying that experience cannot be communicated in song – that is a central tenet of this book, after all – but the notion that Jones, Haggard, Cash and other ‘authentic’ singers are without masquerade, while Brooks is all artifice and no experience, is problematic. I believe the problem lies in the way in which we know ‘their lives have been hard’ from other sources and not directly from their voices. Dawidoff prefaces his comparison by reminding us that Brooks went to university where he studied marketing; it is only implied that this is unusual for a country singer but the mention is itself telling. Dawidoff’s longer portraits of the other singers dwell, not surprisingly, on the aspects of their lives that were hard. As is common with much writing on country music, this is seen to lead directly to the ability to voice experience, a process that renders invisible and inaudible the various levels of mediation necessary for these singers to communicate to an audience at all. Such processes of mediation are essential for the very existence of the creative art these artists produce, as Keith Negus and Michael Pickering describe:

[W]e do not have a fully formed, reflexively comprehended experience which we then reproduce in verbal or sonic form. What this experience means to us, and how we may value it, is usually only discovered in the form of utterance or figuration that is given to it. The expression not only forms the experience but also transforms it, makes it into something whose meaning changes our understanding of it. The relationship between experience and its expression is one of mutual constitution. Without its representation in words or sounds an experience often does not signify for us at all, for a feeling or an idea associated with it is made manifest through the combination of materials that characterise any particular cultural representation. It is because of this that songwriters, composers and musicians are often surprised at what they create and often only retrospectively comprehend what they were attempting to articulate.[67]

Keith Negus and Michael Pickering

These observations resonate with John Dewey’s theories of aesthetic experience. For Dewey, such experience is governed by a perception that comes after and goes beyond mere recognition of the familiar. Crucially, this perception is something that must be shared by the creator and beholder and it is in this relationship that the possibility for aesthetic experience resides. Perception, as an exploratory journey into new experience, is creative in that

to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced.[68]

John Dewey

The kind of experience we learn from art allows and trains us to make aesthetic decisions and I would argue that these aesthetic decisions are bound up with the way we identify with and consequently authenticate art and artists. My version of Dawidoff’s comparison, then, would be that I may be more convinced by the ways in which Merle Haggard has articulated experience than with the ways in which Garth Brooks has but my conviction will rest on a mixture of aesthetics and authentication.

In Time Passing, Sylviane Agacinski considers the way that we come to know our surroundings not only from our direct experience of passing through them, but also from the act of having previously encountered them in texts. ‘The walker’, she writes, ‘reads many texts at once, while each of them resonates with the others. Such bookish knowledge penetrates his present perceptions. . . . Thus the walker’s lived experience is traversed by a “second existence,” the result of books, in such a way that the different types of experience merge and fade into one another’. Agacinski uses the term ‘lettered experience’, which she has taken from Francis Bacon, to explain this ‘bookish knowledge’. Then, noting the predominance in our own era of the visual realm of photography, film and screen media, she proposes an additional term, ‘imaged experience’.[69] In a previous discussion of this passage, I suggested that the term ‘sounded experience’ should be added to evoke the ways in which we learn about our surroundings from musical and other sonic sources.[70] While my previous work in this area was related, like Agacinski’s, to the experience of the city, such sounded experience would be appropriate to other environments. I recall, for example, that the first time I encountered a real desert, I felt as if I were familiar with the landscape partly from having seen similar terrain in films (especially Westerns, as I recall) and having read about it in books, but also from having heard so many songs (especially US country and folk music) that seemed to narrate the experience of such a space (though I did not encounter my desert in the United States). I might say that a voicing of the desert had taken place before I ever arrived in it, one that did not in any way diminish the wonder of being there ‘in the flesh’, but of which I was aware as something feeding into my experience, feeding an intuition of déjà vu.[71]

We have already considered how music enables us to understand and create time; the same can be said for space. Writing about world music, Geoffrey O’Brien observes the following:

There are so many invitations to lose yourself, or more properly to empty yourself of yourself. Once you succeed in clearing that personal baggage out of the way, you can wander freely through the sounds the world gives you as if wandering through the world itself, to discover at last whether you would recognize yourself once you got there. But nowhere is there any freedom from memories, stories, histories. In the very act of listening you weave a fantasy whose very groundlessness is what draws you to listening in the first place.[72]

Geoffrey O’Brien

This passage serves as a reminder that an understanding of musical experience as a losing of self must always connect to a recognition that such loss rarely if ever lasts for long and is always anyway tied up with our capacity for reflection, memory, reference and analysis: self-loss and self-understanding go hand in hand. With this in mind, I wish to retain the notion of sounded experience as essayed here and expand it to take in more than our immediate surroundings; I would like to think of it more broadly as a kind of intertextuality, a way we come to know texts (including songs) through their relationship with, and our knowledge of, other texts. In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes provides a connection between the kinds of experience discussed above and those that arise in the intertextual process:

Reading a text cited by Stendhal (but not written by him) I find Proust in one minute detail. . . . Elsewhere, but in the same way, in Flaubert, it is the blossoming apple trees of Normandy which I read according to Proust. I savor the sway of formulas, the reversal of origins, the ease which brings the anterior text out of the subsequent one. I recognize that Proust’s work, for myself at least, is the reference work, the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony. . . . Proust is what comes to me, not what I summon up; not an ‘authority,’ simply a circular memory.[73]

Roland Barthes

We may be lost at times in reading, listening, watching, wandering or dreaming. But we shouldn’t think that we have turned off at those points. The life of the mind continues and experience accrues. When we return to the ‘real world’, some of that lost time stays with us, to be reclaimed at as yet unknown moments.


To speak of the voice is to speak with the thing that is being spoken about. But in ‘saying’ this (in writing it), I must be immediately aware that voice is not only that which is sounded externally. For, as intimated by those quotation marks, I feel I am using a voice as I type these words; you may feel that you are discerning a voice when you read them. I make this point at this stage in order to indicate that ‘voice’, one of the key terms in this book, is not only related to the sound made by the speaking or singing subject, or heard by the listening subject. Although much of what follows does refer to those specific uses of voice, it is as well to understand that a wider conception of voice is operating throughout. If, therefore, I posit the sounded voice, as many have, as that which originates within my body and is then externalised to the world in which I operate, such an observation can prove equally relevant for the ‘silent’ voice of writing. Both these and other understandings of voice associate it with subjectivity and agency: to have a voice is to have a sense of power; to be voiceless is to lack that sense. Voice is communication of the self by a variety of mediums; it is that which mediates our innermost desire to communicate, to emote, to connect to the world beyond us. We may also direct our voices at ourselves, via a kind of internal ‘conversation’ (never really a monologue, for the workings of the brain are too scattered for that); even so, this is still a kind of externalisation in that we objectify ourselves by talking ‘to’ ourselves.

That voice is more than that sonic signal which emanates from the body of a vocalist is a point to which I will return. For now, I will stay with the sounded aspect of vocal communication. In listening to a voice, I become aware of the act of human communication, regardless of whether or not the voice is directed at me. If the voice is producing a language I understand – especially if it is a language I claim as ‘mine’ – then the possibility of identification with that voice increases; I find myself taking up a relative position to it and to what it is saying (or what it might be saying, if it is just out of my range of hearing or if there are other obstacles or distracting sounds intervening). If the voice is producing a language I do not know – whether speaking a foreign language or engaging in a non-semantic vocal act – I can still be aware of its communicative potential and can recognise a variety of human qualities, allowing perhaps for a different kind of identification (I can be attracted or repelled by a voice I cannot understand). In the short story ‘A King Listens’, Italo Calvino writes, ‘A voice means this: there is a living person, throat, chest, feelings, who sends into the air this voice, different from all other voices. A voice involves the throat, saliva, infancy, the patina of experienced life, the mind’s intentions, the pleasure of giving a personal form to sound waves.’[74] This is an interesting description for this book in that it suggests that a voice is always ‘late’; it is the result of experience, imitation and repetition.

In Calvino’s story, the king never sees the owner of the voice that leads him to these thoughts. He is presented as a paranoid, distant ruler, literally cut off from his subjects by isolation within the throne room of his palace. Everything has been carefully planned to avoid his having to leave the room (or even the throne) or to have contact with the outside world. With little to do other than retain his regal posture, he listens to the sounds of the palace: doors slamming, the shuffling of feet, stifled cries. In between these sounds, it is the silences that come to spook him the most, for they seem heavy with the threat of rebellion. He becomes obsessed with listening and finds himself able to extend his perception to the sounds of the city beyond the palace walls, ‘a distant rumble at the bottom of the ear, a hum of voices, a buzz of wheels’.[75] From the anonymous buzz, he detects the voice of a woman singing and comes to the above-quoted realisation: although seemingly bodiless, this voice signifies the presence of a body and therefore of a unique person. Adriana Cavarero builds upon this realisation in her book For More than One Voice to argue for a philosophy of voice that does not generalise it in abstraction, but rather identifies the plurality of voices and, therefore, subjective relationships constituted through vocal communication. She posits, in response to Calvino’s story, that ‘the voice is the equivalent of what the unique person has that is most hidden and most genuine. This is not an unreachable treasure, or an ineffable essence, or still less, a sort of secret nucleus of the self; rather, it is a deep vitality of the unique being who takes pleasure in revealing herself through the emission of the voice’.[76]

Cavarero also points out that Calvino privileges an emphasis on the vocal (on sound) over the semantic. The relationship set up between the king and the unseen and unknown female singer is one based on what Cavarero calls ‘the relational valence of the vocal sphere’, an arena in which mutually pleasurable relationships are established by voices and listeners.[77]

The vocal can be distinguished from the semantic but it is my contention in the examples I use in this book that we commonly listen to both together. Just as the vocal can be separated from the semantic while also being endlessly reconnected, so can the voice be separated from the body – as the singing voice is from the singer in Calvino’s tale. Still, we have a tendency to provide embodied sources for ‘unseen’ voices, to create what Steven Connor calls a ‘vocalic body’. We know that bodies produce voices but, Connor argues, the reverse is also true: ‘The vocalic body is the idea – which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucination – of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice.’[78] Connor relates this process to the mental connection of hearing and seeing, and of ear and eye. Hearing a voice whose source is not immediately apparent, we create a vocalic body, either in our mind’s eye or by projecting the source onto (or into) a visible, believable object. Connor’s theory appears at the outset of a cultural history of ventriloquism and the ventriloquist’s dummy provides an obvious example of the working of the vocalic body. But ventriloquism, as Connor shows, extends much further than the use of such props and he unearths numerous examples of the ways in which voices have been connected to ‘others’ through history.

The voice, as Connor repeatedly shows, is intimately connected to the perception, understanding and production of space. But the voice is also a carrier of time and of experience, a sign of the passing of time. Time passes in speaking, as speaking passes time. The same is true of singing, with which this book will be mostly engaged. Time can be measured in the length of a song, in a song’s life course or in the ways in which songs revisit us through our own life course. Voices change over time and there is not much we can do to alter time’s passage through the vocal cords.[79] That said, voices can also be adapted to an extent by surgical alteration or through the mechanics of vocal production. The voice in this sense is a carrier of time but it may equally be a mask of time. When we listen to Tom Waits, for example, we seem to hear a singer who has always sounded ‘old’ due to the depth and rasp of his voice. But it wasn’t always so, and the distance travelled in his voice between his albums Closing Time (1973) and Small Change (1976) is remarkable, suggesting more than a mere three years of ‘natural’ vocal ageing. On earlier songs such as ‘Ol’ 55’, Waits adopts a mid-range, occasionally high-leaning vocal that, combined with the countryish musical language, might not sound out of place on an Eagles record. When the needle drops on ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, the opening song of Small Change, we hear Waits sing of being ‘wasted and wounded’ and his confession is made all the more convincing by the deep, ‘wounded’ grain of his voice; he sounds almost too ‘wasted’ to get through his tall tale.[80] On ‘I Wish I Was in New Orleans’, another track from Small Change, Waits offers a clue as to where this voice may have come from (or be directed towards) when, referencing ‘St James Infirmary’, he appears to channel Louis Armstrong. The attachment of a voice to a tradition, and to a bodily aesthetic associated with that tradition, is a theme that will recur in this book; here it is as if Waits has decided to ingest Armstrong’s famous rasp and make it his own. Other factors must be considered of course – the effects of drink and cigarettes on Waits’s voice, the demands of trumpet playing on Armstrong’s – but there is also artifice at work here and in this we should be neither surprised nor disappointed. As noted earlier in the description of Calvino’s story, part of vocal production is ‘the pleasure of giving a personal form to sound waves’.

This sense of pleasure is central to Roland Barthes’s influential essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’, in which Barthes distinguishes between what he calls the pheno-song and geno-song. Pheno-song includes ‘all the features which derive from the structure of the sung language, from the coded form of the melisma, the idiolect, the composer, the style of interpretation: in short, everything which, in the performance, is at the service of communication, of representation, of expression’. This also includes supposedly ‘subjective’ qualities such as expressivity and vocal personality. Geno-song is ‘the space in which the significations germinate’ and ‘that culmination (or depth) of production where melody actually works on language – not what it says but the voluptuous pleasure of its signifier-sounds, of its letters’.[81] Barthes uses this distinction to try and ascertain why he is more moved by one particular singer than another. It is not a matter of professional technique, for which mastery of the pheno-song (acquired typically through musical training) would be sufficient; rather, it is something in excess of (or perhaps in subtraction from) technical perfection that forms a more intimate relationship between listener and speaker/singer. For Barthes the essence of the geno-song lies in ‘the grain of the voice’ which he defines as

the body in the singing voice, in the writing hand, the performing limb. If I perceive the ‘grain’ of this music and if I attribute to this ‘grain’ a theoretical value (this is the assumption of the text in the work), I cannot help making a new scheme of evaluation for myself, individual no doubt, since I am determined to listen to my relation to the body of someone who is singing or playing and since that relation is an erotic one.[82]

Roland Barthes

Adriana Cavarero is critical of Barthes’s conception of the voice in that she feels it continues a long-standing philosophical tradition of privileging language over sound. Her goal is rather to account for the individuality of voices on the basis of vocal sound rather than verbal message. I find Cavarero’s account compelling but, in thinking about the communication of time, age and experience in writers and singers of songs whose language I share and value, I find I have to maintain a certain allegiance to the primacy of the word. I try to do so, however, within a framework that can acknowledge the insights gained from invoking nonsemantic sound: the rasp of the voice, the rattle in the throat, the various signifiers of the passage of time through the lived body. I also continue to find Barthes’s formulation of the grain of the voice useful, not least in provoking curiosity as to how grain relates to time, age and experience. As I have suggested elsewhere, I often find it useful in my listening to deploy the notion of pheno-song and geno-song alongside a range of other Barthesian concepts in which we find the irruption of one revealing mode of signifying into another.[83] This would entail, for example, thinking of moments of geno-song breaking through the pheno-song (within one song, one singer), or of the distinction made by Barthes between plaisir and jouissance and between studium and punctum. The taking over of plaisir by jouissance can be thought of simply as that of ecstasy or bliss overcoming ‘mere’ pleasure. The other pair of concepts was developed by Barthes to analyse visual texts (photographs) but I find myself adapting them to sonic texts too. For Barthes the studium is the cultural ‘participat[ion] in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions’ of a scene, while the punctum is the ‘element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me’.[84] Music texts are rife which such moments and I find resonance between punctum and the puncture experienced by intense sonic moments. These need not be vocal, though it is to voices I am most often drawn and I would agree with Freya Jarman when she writes that ‘instrumental music has powerful effects, and is able to bring about its own set of identificatory points, but the voice, understood as being synonymous with the self, has a particular capacity in this regard’.[85]

As an example of the ways in which such notions relate to the locations of the performer within the performance, I find this description of traditional singing by the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan particularly powerful:

People who argue that it is enough in singing traditional song to simply declaim the lyric without any involvement of the singer’s personal experience are talking drivel. They are treating a repository of human experience with contempt and the approach they advocate is appropriate to stamp-collecting, not singing. Learning the words is not the job, it is merely the beginning of the preparation to do the job. The people who wrote those songs wrote them from personal experience, they have been kept alive because they say something of eternal relevence [sic] to the universality of human experience and it is the job of the singer, more than anything else, to put in the work necessary to study, understand and translate that experience so as to communicate it to the listener. Otherwise, we might as well just hand the members of the audience a printed copy of the lyric and we can all go home.[86]

Dick Gaughan

While this is a powerful defence of the art of interpretation and innovation in folk song, it could still be claimed that what Gaughan is defending here is, in Barthes’s terms, an effective use of pheno-song in order to communicate the message of the song. But I think it hints at more than that, especially as it forms the main paragraph of a paean to Sandy Denny, and in particular to her interpretation of ‘Banks of the Nile’ on the first Fotheringay album. In praising Denny’s performance, Gaughan writes of ‘the raw, aching, agony which she brings to her reading [and which] makes it impossible not to feel the grief and fear of the young woman at the separation from her loved one and the uncertainty of his return from the horrors of war’. This emphasis on feeling, and on pain, echoes Barthes’s repeated references to the pains, as well as the pleasures, of the text (notable in his repeated use of the term jouissance). Similarly, Gaughan’s subsequent use of the word ‘tangible’ to describe the way Denny offers her message to the listener strikes me as an example of the embodiment of the song language into something beyond ‘mere’ communication. I would also want to connect these observations to Gaughan’s own extraordinary vocal art, in which his forcing of the language of folk song to his own desires leads to moments of bliss in which vocal grain takes over completely from linguistic clarity.[87] As Jarman observes, ‘The (material) voice can be a mediator between body and language; it gives language meaning, in its inflections, its speed, its accent, its bodiliness, but it is also an object apart from language. It speaks more of the body than of syntax.’[88]

This aspect of mediation is an important one I believe, for it allows us to steer a course between the typically polarised concepts of Barthes’s theories. For my part, I am interested in the late voice as both pheno-text and geno-text in that I am interested in how songwriters have communicated the passage of time, age and experience in the language of song texts and in how we as listeners may hear those qualities in voice beyond language. I am particularly engaged by moments – often, but not exclusively, found later in singers’ careers – when those elements come together. To return to the example of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, I can say that I hear plenty of language about time, age and experience in Sandy Denny’s sung words and a suitably flowing melancholy in the musical setting provided by the rest of Fairport Convention, but I hear more body, more physical weariness, in Nina Simone’s version of the song. That is not to say that I cannot identify aspects of geno-song, of grain, in Denny’s version; indeed, there are moments in the song where her voice becomes harsher, working against the placid beauty of the song’s studium and bringing an edge (a punctum) that I read as the hardening of one’s hopes and dreams in the light of experience. Yet, even with this evidence of lateness, I still hear the song as youthful; the lateness is partly attained and partly anticipated, both aspects indicative of the passage from youth to adulthood. In Simone, I hear a lateness that speaks of further experience, even of irritation at the passing of time. But more importantly for what I am trying to say here, I do not feel compelled to choose between body and language, for I find myself experiencing both a world-weary singer and a song about the ageing of the world.

For another example, I might choose, as I do in Chapter 5, an early and a late recording of ‘Both Sides Now’ by Joni Mitchell. Like Denny’s, this is a much-covered song and there are countless fascinating versions to choose from. Most telling, perhaps, are the versions recorded by Mitchell herself, in 1969 and 2000. In the former, the pheno-song seems paramount, the clarity of the message enhanced by Mitchell’s crystal-clear diction, strict poetic meter and a relative lack of adornment in voice and guitar accompaniment. It is precisely the contrast between the experience and wisdom conveyed in the song’s language and the youthful ‘innocence’ presented by the singer that has caused so many people over the years to voice surprise that someone so young could produce such a work (such comments were also made about Judy Collins, who had a hit with the song). Mitchell’s return to ‘Both Sides Now’ in 2000 for an album of the same title, presented a singer whose voice – noticeably aged, deeper, but also more subtly nuanced – gave body to the song in a way that underlined, and made more convincing, its claims to experience, reflection and resignation. Here the surprise came in hearing the voice ‘as it really is’ rather than as it was preserved on record thirty-one years earlier.

Voices age differently, though, and many remain relatively constant in comparison to other aspects of the body typically addressed in the consideration of age and change in other people (or in ourselves). Perhaps we do not expect the voice to age in the ways that other parts of the body do. Even though voices lose pitch over long periods of time, the process is not as noticeable as the changes we perceive visually. We also suffer a restriction in the frequencies we can hear as we age, making us perhaps less sensitive to changing voices. In considering ageing voices, then, it is necessary to determine to what extent there is real change, and to what extent that change is ‘natural’ or forced.[89] In one of the many reflections on ageing in the final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Proust describes a moment when, on overhearing the unchanged voice of an old friend, he is shocked to discover that its owner’s looks are much altered: ‘The voice seemed to be emitted by an advanced phonograph, for while it was that of my friend, it emanated from a stout, grey-haired old fellow whom I did not know.’[90] One other aspect to bear in mind when considering the ‘constancy’ of the voice is the possibility to alter the pitch of the voice in recording; throughout this book, I discuss the evidence found in recorded voices, so there is a heightened possibility for deception. I don’t, however, believe this invalidates a listener’s recognition of age or experience. What seems important here is that something is created in the sound stage of the listening experience such that the listener feels they have access to a point, or points, of identification with the voices they are listening to. Indeed, as Richard Middleton has suggested, it is in recorded music that ‘we may discover – finally! – the location of that vocal “grain” which Roland Barthes so influentially identified but which neither he nor his many followers have ever satisfactorily pinned down’.[91] But just as to prove the veracity of the recorded voice is to take an extreme ‘objective’ position, so too is it extreme to over-emphasise ‘subjective’ fantasy. I would suspect that most listeners adopt a position somewhere in between these extremes. To hear a particular singer in their songs is a necessary part of identifying (with) that singer and of distinguishing them from other singers.

A recurring theme of this chapter is the question relating to location, to the possibility (or impossibility) of pinning down the aspect under consideration. Where is the time and where does it go? Where is age? Where is the voice? Where does it come from and where does it go? Can we locate the source of the voice that affects us so? Barthes’s pronouncements on the grain of the voice suggest that it enables us to find the person inside; it is where they are in the song we hear. But this implies that there is a ‘they’ and something to be ‘in’, which would seem to go against the ‘death of the author’ announced by Barthes in another of his well-known essays. Is there a metaphysics of presence at work here? Mladen Dolar argues that Barthes’s conception of the grain of the voice ‘will never do’ because a voice cannot be pinned to a body. ‘Every emission of the voice,’ he writes, ‘is by its very essence ventriloquism. Ventriloquism pertains to voice as such, to its inherently acousmatic character: the voice comes from inside the body, the belly, the stomach – from something incompatible with and irreducible to the activity of the mouth. The fact that we see the aperture does not demystify the voice; on the contrary it enhances the enigma’.[92] Dolar cites cinema as an exemplary site for witnessing this, making reference to both the work and the examples of Michel Chion.[93] This is a useful counter to Barthes but not a reason to do away with the body or the fantasy of the body; indeed, Dolar provides plenty of his own examples that connect voices to bodies and bodily functions. It could be claimed that Barthes is thinking about a vocal body in a manner analogous to the working of the text in ‘The Death of the Author’. Just as the text bears the meaning rather than the biographical author who produced it, so perhaps does the vocal text bear meaning (including the conjuration of a sonorous body) independently of our knowledge of the ‘real’ source. This tension can serve as a reminder that the voices of age, time and experience which we encounter are both real and imaginary. They come from real sources from which we, as listeners, are forever removed. Nevertheless, we can project time, age and experience onto or into them as much as we can project other qualities. Barthes’s identification of the grain might be a fantasy in Dolar’s conception but, for me, it remains intriguing and believable. For if, as Dolar also says, ‘listening is “always-already” incipient obedience’, we might claim that one of the things to which we are obedient is an unspoken imperative to match a voice to a source.[94]

With obedience in mind, we might think of the obedience – or powerlessness – of the listener captivated by the storyteller. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the mariner catches a young man on his way to a wedding and starts to tell him a story. The guest, eager to get to the festivities, protests and tries to free himself from the old man’s grip – initially a physical grip (‘unhand me, grey-beard loon!’) but then the grip of the mariner’s ‘glittering eye’ holds the young man in place. As the old man launches his epic tale, the guest ‘cannot choose but hear’. The glittering eye is the connection to the past; it is the spark of youth and life still alive in the ancient visage. Yet so is the voice, working as it does alongside the eye to captivate the listener. As the mariner’s epic tale unfolds, so experience is transferred from the teller to the listener, who leaves the listening experience ‘stunned’ and ‘forlorn’ and wakes the following morning ‘a sadder and a wiser man’. But the experience has not been random, for the mariner has chosen his listener: ‘I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach.’ It is the tale that is important here, the carrying of the tale as burden, as something to be passed on. The tale is the witness document, the text that can be taken up by others to tap into its experience. Perhaps, then, a song seeks out the listeners who need to hear it, to learn from it.

As well as keeping pheno-song and geno-song in mind – considering them as distinct but interrelated and inter-mediated – I also wish to note the connections Barthes makes between writing and voice. In ‘The Grain of the Voice’, he describes the presence of the body in writing and, at the culmination of The Pleasure of the Text, he speculates on the notion of ‘writing aloud’, an aesthetic process whose ‘aim is not the clarity of messages, the theatre of emotions; what it searches for (in a perspective of bliss) are the pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language’.[95] The writing of time, age and experience into popular song is also, I argue, a process of knowing how to turn a phrase, provide a potent metaphor and give to these universal themes a local, specific and memorable articulation. That articulation is found, as is Barthes’s ‘grain’ both in ‘the writing hand’ and ‘the singing voice’. But it is also found in what the hand writes and the voice sings and these processes too I want to associate to the late voice, as the ‘voicing’ of time, age and experience in a variety of manifestations: the writing of songs, the construction of public persona, the reporting of the self in interview, memoir and other means.

When we talk of writers finding their voice, we are surely saying something about the identification and mastery of a voice that requires a grain, an identifying style in excess of style. In an acceptance speech he gave on receiving the Prince of Asturias Award in 2011 (a speech that is in itself a model of seductive storytelling and should be heard in its entirety), Leonard Cohen spoke of his attempts to find a voice as a young man:

Now, you know of my deep association and confraternity with the poet Federico García Lorca. I could say that when I was a young man, an adolescent, and I hungered for a voice, I studied the English poets and I knew their work well, and I copied their styles, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence.[96]

Leonard Cohen

Here, voice is something to be studied and also to be discovered; it is something that belongs to others but not to oneself. This understanding of voice might seem to go against more romantic interpretations of the grain of the voice as something that slips past, or sticks through, or obstructs the studied voice. But such romantic conceptions, valuable as they can be, neglect the fact that we can never escape imitation or the shadow of culture on the voice. Cohen’s combination of quest, discovery and ownership, meanwhile, articulates something of the dialectic of the fixed (that which can be studied) and the unfixed (that which is concerned with coming into voice, with voice as a process). Voicing experience, whether in writing or singing, can be thought of as a way of inhabiting the world in which that experience took place, and that world is one filled with precursors. Cohen shows us this again in his compelling late composition ‘Tower of Song’, in which he presents himself as an inhabitant of an edifice in which one pays one’s rent by turning experience into art. Others have lived and laboured there before him and their ghosts still inhabit the building; Hank Williams resides ‘a hundred floors above me’, at a level the struggling song-worker can only dream of achieving.[97]

As listeners in search of voices, we undertake our own quests and discoveries and come to voice in ways which are guided by exposure to other voices. With the growth of mechanical reproduction, this has increasingly become an experience in which we combine local and ‘foreign’ sources; many of us are not, at least, restricted to the oral culture of our immediate vicinity. Books, photographs, films, records and other promising objects offer opportunities for surrogate experiences or for a more personalised experience of learning. Rather than being a celebration of alienation, I intend this observation as a way of highlighting the importance of solitary discovery, working as it does in dialectical relationship with collective discovery and education. For example, a parent’s neglected record collection might prove interesting to a child precisely because of the mystery that accumulates around its neglect (and, these days, the aura of old physical objects). Learning in isolation is an important aspect of adolescent development, and indeed of development at all stages of life. Connections made during such experience can be intense, personal and long lasting (as with Cohen’s discovery of Lorca). That was certainly my experience with much of the music discussed in this book. I felt as though I had been primed for the experience but it was as if I needed to make the rest of the discovery, the intimate connection, by myself, away from other ears. That connection often had to be between the singer and myself. After that, I was content to gradually move towards a more integrated, familial and social sharing of the musical experience. This is part of the independence of growing up: leaving home, staking a claim, returning.

Living with voices

Among the many voices we live with we must include recorded voices. Listeners, like readers, inhabit texts and they do so in a manner analogous to the ‘active’ reading suggested by Gaston Bachelard and Michel de Certeau. While Bachelard explores the ‘poetics of space’ by meditating on the ways we dwell in poems and buildings, Certeau pursues the ‘silent production’ of the reader, in which ‘a different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place’:

This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. It transforms another person’s property into a space borrowed for a moment by a transient. Renters make comparable changes in an apartment they furnish with their acts and memories; as do speakers, in the language into which they insert both the messages of their native tongue and, through their accent, through their own ‘turns of phrase,’ etc., their own history; as do pedestrians, in the streets they fill with the forests of their desires and goals.[98]

Michel de Certeau

The notion of inhabiting connects also to the taking on of another’s text in the act of interpretation. If it is often said of Frank Sinatra, for example, that he ‘inhabited’ the songs he performed, the architectural or domestic metaphor is worth pursuing. Songs can be inhabited and adapted like houses, by decorating a part in a particular way or by making major alterations or renovations (think, for example, of the ways in which many interpreters of the Great American Songbook removed whole verses from songs and focused instead on the 32-bar refrains). A house must exist before we inhabit it and it will normally continue to exist after we do not; its inhabitant is temporary but can make lasting changes to the temporary residence (just as a modified song becomes, in its new form, a standard). Songs, like buildings, can be built upon each other; we can even imagine singers residing on different levels, as with Cohen’s Tower of Song.

As listeners, we too inhabit songs and form relationships with voices, ‘moving in’ with them, living with them, ageing with them, perhaps leaving them. This intimate relationship between creators and perceivers of artistic products is highlighted in John Dewey’s theories of aesthetic experience. There has to be a shared element of experience for such relationships to be forged, but this does not negate the possibility of novelty or originality. Of poems and pictures, for example, Dewey writes that they ‘present material passed through the alembic of personal experience. They have no precedents in existence or in universal being. But, nonetheless, their material came from the public world and so has qualities in common with the material of other experiences, while the product awakens in other persons new perceptions of the meanings of the common world’.[99] I am often struck by the articulation of this experience when I read accounts of fans’ and critics’ relationships with the music they love, and love to analyse. Paul Williams’s intense accounts of the connection he feels with the work of Neil Young and Bob Dylan are cases in point, as is Michelle Mercer’s account of Joni Mitchell, which reveals, among other things, Mitchell’s own awareness of this process.[100] The subjectivities that are exposed in such accounts are often telling and invite us to consider the grounds upon which our own evaluative accounts are based. In the case of Mitchell, for example, I know very well that it can be objectively argued that her 1974 album Court & Spark is as strong an album as Blue (1971), and that Hejira (1976) presents a poetic maturity unprecedented in Mitchell’s work. But it was Blue that caught me first and at the right time to make an impression (I am very far from being alone or original here, as Mercer’s book on Mitchell’s ‘Blue period’ makes clear). It is often remarked that works that capture us in our youth are the ones that stay with us, but I think it goes further than this. We are subject to the recommendations of others, to canons, to what is widely or locally available, to what we can access.[101] And our personal relationships with these highly influential documents evolve as we return to them, discard them or share them with others in such ways that those first encounters get revisited and perhaps repeated.[102] ‘Form’, wrote Dewey, ‘is the art of making clear what is involved in the organization of space and time prefigured in every course of a developing life-experience’.[103] What takes form in such a way that it can be returned to, passed on and communicated as experience is of vital importance to how we understand what the world has to offer. As Paul Williams wrote in the 1960s, in a review partly dedicated to Joni Mitchell’s first album:

[These works] are an aspect of experience, as well as the product of same; what we are today and soon is shaped by what we hear of them. . . . Our understanding of the world is daily added to, crossed out, erased, struck over, pasted together by various cyclones and breezes that blow through. If we do not listen to music, if we fail to read books or talk with each other, if we seldom look on human beauty or deep-felt expression or accidental creation, we diminish ourselves. Which somehow means there is a life-energy passed through art, through communication that is also expression (which indicates a kind of moreness or fullness).[104]

Paul Williams

Case studies

A number of songs, albums and artists that I discuss in this book are ones I have lived with for years. It was no doubt due to that long relationship that, when I came to start formulating ideas about the late voice, I found myself thinking about these examples rather than others. Another feature common to my examples is that I recall feeling, on first encountering them, a sense of recognition, as if they were saying something I already knew but had not yet been able to articulate. Perhaps, like Leonard Cohen, I found in these voices a way of establishing a self; perhaps, like Merle Haggard, I was floored by the fact that someone could tell my story in a song.[105] These are common experiences – we all have those moments of intense jouissance that go by the name ‘epiphanies’ – and yet still intensely personal. As with songs, so with written texts: for a writer and researcher, there is something wonderful about encountering texts which seem to articulate something one had felt but had perhaps not yet put into coherent form, or which perhaps one had not yet truly perceived as being important. Reading Siegfried Zielinski’s introduction to his Deep Time of the Media was one such experience for me and I feel drawn to quote his account of the importance of curiosities and examples in scholarship:

[A]ttractions, sensations, events, or phenomena that create a stir and draw out attention; these demand to be portrayed in such a way that their potential to stimulate can develop and flourish. The finds must be approached with respect, care, and goodwill, not disparaged or marginalized. My [work] is written in a spirit of praise and commendation, not of critique. I am aware that this represents a break with the ‘proper’ approach to history that I was taught at university. At center stage, I shall put people and their works; I shall, on occasion, wander off but always remain close to them. It does not bother me that this type of historiography may be criticized as romantic. We who have chosen to teach, research, and write all have our heroes and heroines . . . The people I am concerned with here are people imbued with an enduring something that interests us passionately.[106]

Siegfried Zielinski

I value this unembarrassed insistence on praise and commendation of people and works to whom we are drawn and which stimulate us to recognise and pass on the ‘enduring something’ they have revealed to us. Like Zielinski, my selections are not random but tell, I hope, a reasonably coherent story; that they are selective and partial I do not deny. As I say, this is largely a body of work that I came to as a teenager and young adult and in which I recognised the voicing of experience. One of the things that have always fascinated me with this work was how I measured my own experience (and inexperience) with what I heard in the songs. I heard and anticipated things that had not yet happened to me. But there is also much experience gained by the age of 18 and I am tempted to posit experience, in this light, as something that works like a sense. Perhaps, in encountering the representation of experiences we have not yet had, we still recognise the act, or process, of experiencing and this is initially what is meaningful; later, we fill in the gaps and identify (or not) with the specifics. It may well be that the ultimate message of this book is nothing more than that popular songs offer ideal vehicles or modes for the communication of experience, a claim which may, depending on one’s perspective, be banal, modest or profound. I would still maintain that meaning can be found in the journey to reach that ‘foregone’ conclusion; as I have been before, I am drawn to the words of the poet Jim Harrison, who writes that ‘It is not so much that I got / there from here, which is everyone’s / story: but the shape / of the voyage.’[107]

Some of the examples I use are ones I came to later in the voyage and which fitted in with the general trajectory of my listening. I wanted to remain faithful to the late voice idea as it had come to me and it had done so via consideration of mainly North American and British sources, which accounted for much of my early musical experience. Having gained, over the years, a deep interest in musics from other parts of the world, I am aware that a number of themes explored in these case studies could be applied to others less canonical and/or less Anglocentric. Doing so would no doubt lead to a different set of questions and approaches, perhaps more interesting than those I have undertaken here. Yet it was equally important to me, as an initial step, to explore the case studies that had suggested themselves to me for the longest period, those songs that had invited and encouraged me to consider time, age and experience for myself and through which I had measured my own life experience. I would like this work to mark both that initial step and an invitation (to myself, to others) to consider a much wider range of musics in relation to the themes explored here.

Given the plurality of perspectives available even within my limited cultural and stylistic case studies, as well as my own insistence of anticipated lateness and the multiplicity of voices, my retention of a singular concept – the late voice rather than late voices – may seem strange. Adriana Cavarero, whom I quoted earlier, has argued against such a singular conception of the voice. Yet, following the discoveries of my original train of thought, I still believe that these various perspectives can be clustered together under a singular term, one that provocatively suggests universalism while also reserving the right to reflect different subject positions, to see lateness itself as something both achieved (an affective achievement, most prominently recognised when felt as an interference in being) and deferred (relegated to the not-yet, a not-yet that recognises lateness but sees it as something still to come).

I have said something about how I selected my examples (or rather perhaps, how they selected me). As to how I then chose to go about finding ‘meaning’ in them, I have, as may already be evident, allowed my cumulative experience of the songs to flavour my interpretation, while also checking the potential for distortion in such an approach by reading other accounts of the people and works I am studying. While doing so, I found recent work by Keith Negus on narrative and interpretation to be particularly resonant with some of my own experiences. In one article, Negus adopts an ‘intercontextual’ approach which brings in the interpreter’s biography and subject position while also attempting to measure these against others’ responses (e.g. those encountered in the classroom, online forums, magazines and so on).[108] This seems to me a useful strategy and, while I have not adopted such an approach in as systematic a way as Negus models, I have certainly attempted to balance my own relationship to and understanding of artists and music with those of others (critics, fans, biographers, acquaintances, students, academic colleagues and the musicians themselves). There is always a danger, in such an approach, that one finds what one wants to find in order to support one’s theories, but I am not aware of an interpretive discipline for which this is not a danger; it is as likely to happen ‘in the field’ as it is in the classroom, the conference, the internet forum, the biography or the fabled armchair. Besides, I do not believe that, for those of us who remain faithful to the idea of intellectual curiosity, there is even a real possibility of maintaining a fixed, authoritative take on interpretation. That does not stop the questions posed and the speculations invited by interpretation from being interesting and critically productive. We should not be afraid to feel as our representative artists feel, or to project upon them the thoughts that we might have them think. As Dewey writes:

Only the psychology that has separated things which in reality belong together holds that scientists and philosophers think while poets and painters follow their feelings. In both, and to the same extent in the degree in which they are of comparable rank, there is emotionalized thinking, and there are feelings whose substance consists of appreciated meanings or ideas.[109]

John Dewey

I have tended to concentrate on qualities I noticed when listening to ‘my’ artists and also on qualities noted by others who have written or spoken about them. It is from these observations that I have teased out patterns that might start to resemble a system for identifying aspects of the late voice. It is definitely not the case that such a system has been first devised and then applied to the case studies. In this sense I have not been systematic in my approach or my structuring, instead allowing each of the case studies to suggest certain aspects, pausing at times to systemise the patterns. Where I have tried to be systematic is in my re-testing of each case study against criteria that emerged from the case studies, especially in connection to the qualities of the late voice that I have already introduced. At no point have I sought to pin down, once and for all, the meanings of the pieces under scrutiny, for one thing experience teaches us is that meaning changes with time.

Ultimately, I believe that one’s choice of examples and methods should be understood as invitations to thinking, as ways in which one particular thinker has come to have these thoughts and to communicate them. Others will have had different experiences, will have come from different backgrounds, will have inherited different bodies of work and will have negotiated the soundtracks of their lives in different ways. I hope my work can be an invitation, for those who find resonance in any of the propositions and suppositions contained in the book, to follow up on some of them and see to what extent they might relate to other contexts. Rather than critiquing what has been omitted, I would hope for others to affirm the potential of applying what has been attempted here to other situations. Some of our experiences will have been very similar, after all, for none of us escape the processes of time, age and experience.

[1] Nina Simone, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, on Emergency Ward / It Is Finished / Black Gold (CD, Camden 74321924802, 2002).

[2] Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1: 5. The quotation from Augustine is taken from Saint Augustine, The Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961).

[3] Eva Hoffman, Time (London: Profile, 2011), 64.

[4] Hoffman, Time, 61.

[5] Hoffman, Time, 65.

[6] Augustine, Confessions, 278.

[7] Philip Ward, Sandy Denny: Reflections on Her Music (Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador, 2011), 96.

[8] Jean Améry, On Aging: Revolt and Resignation, trans. John D. Barlow (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 4.

[9] Guy Clark, ‘It’s About Time’, on Guy Clark, Texas Cookin’ (LP: Edsel ED287, 1988). All of Clark’s recorded work is imbued with a strong sense of lateness. Like Leonard Cohen, he released his first album when he was already in his early thirties and, like Cohen, his songs spoke of considerable experience and reflection. Titled Old No. 1, his 1975 debut included the classic ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’, a moving account of a boy’s friendship with a much older mentor, containing evocative age-themed lines such as ‘he’d sit in the kitchen and cry / and run his fingers through seventy years of livin’. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Rush, The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) and Nanci Griffith. Walker’s liner note for Clark’s 1975 album, written as a poem, gives a pretty good definition of the late voice: ‘I think of young ones makin’ it/too soon/while Tom Waits/Guy writes/of old men/and old trains/and old memories/like black & white movies . . . carved like crow’s feet/in the corners of his past’. ‘Desperados’ and Walker’s poem-note can both be found on Guy Clark, Old No. 1 (LP: Edsel ED 285, 1988).

[10] Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 149.

[11] Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 116.

[12] Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, trans. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 56.

[13] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), xxi.

[14] This and previously quoted lines from ‘Burnt Norton’, in T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 171–6.

[15] ‘A Short Life of Trouble’ is an old-time song which circulated in the Appalachian region of the United States and is associated with the performers G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, who recorded it in the 1920s. The song is part of the repertoire of Ralph Stanley, the subject of the next chapter.

[16] T. S. Eliot, liner note to Four Quartets Read by the Author (LP: His Master’s Voice CLP 1115, c. 1956).

[17] This last image can be transferred to other playback devices in which, whether we perceive it or not, we receive music as a flow of data passing a still point, be it the cassette head, the laser of the CD player or the line (still or moving) positioned in relation to visualised sound waves on a computer screen. As for Eliot’s speaking voice, whether it can be heard as a ‘late voice’ is debatable but his poem is certainly a ‘late’ poem not only in its author’s career, but also in its preoccupations, as Kathleen Woodward makes clear in her study of Eliot’s late work. See Kathleen Woodward, At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing: The Late Poems of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1980), 27–67.

[18] Bob Copper, A Song for Every Season (Frogmore: Paladin, 1971).

[19] Keith Negus, ‘Narrative Time and the Popular Song’, Popular Music and Society 35, no. 4 (2012): 483–500.

[20] See Nicholas Roe, ‘Playing Time’, in Do You, Mr Jones?: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors, ed. Neil Corcoran (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), 81–104.

[21] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 1: 3.

[22] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 1: 67.

[23] Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 1: 68–9.

[24] Keith Negus, ‘Narrative, Interpretation, and the Popular Song’, Musical Quarterly 95, nos 2–3 (Summer–Fall 2012): 368–95.

[25] Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard, A Simple Twist of Fate: Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood and the Tracks (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2004).

[26] Nigel Williamson, Journey through the Past: The Stories behind the Classic Songs of Neil Young (London: Carlton, 2002).

[27] This conflating of biography and song text – of the latter as record of the former – seems especially notable in the case of singer-songwriters or those associated with ‘confessional’ music; it is also a favoured mode of much rock criticism. These two aspects often come together; to take a typical example, when the magazine Uncut put Joni Mitchell on its cover to celebrate her seventieth birthday in 2013, the Mitchell feature was accompanied by a list of the ‘50 Greatest Singer/Songwriter Albums’. Virtually all the albums featured in the list – which came with the telling subtitle ‘Blood on the Tracklists!’ – were explained via reference to events in their writers’ lives. Uncut no. 199 (December 2013).

[28] Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One (London: Pocket Books, 2005), 34. Dylan would come to treat 45s in a different way in the mid-2000s, when he became a radio DJ and put them together to form a narrative.

[29] Post on the Facebook page (28 August 2014),

[30] Shel Silverstein’s songs make particularly good case studies for thinking about narrative in relation to experience, given as they are to building stories towards morals or lessons learned, only to twist the narrative in subversive and/or humorous ways. See for example ‘A Boy Named Sue’ or ‘The Winner’ and hear these and other Silverstein songs delivered in magnificent late voice by Johnny Cash, Marianne Faithful, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare and Lucinda Williams. The latter three, and John Prine, can be heard on Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein (LP: Sugar Hill SUG-LP-4051, 2013).

[31] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time Volume 6: Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2002), 356.

[32] Mike Hepworth, Stories of Ageing (Buckingham: Open University Press, 2000), 1.

[33] Lynne Segal, Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (London: Verso, 2013), 11–17.

[34] See Andy Bennett, Music, Style, and Aging: Growing Old Disgracefully? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013); Andy Bennett and Paul Hodkinson (eds), Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity (London and New York: Berg, 2012); Andrew Blaikie, Ageing and Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Mike Featherstone and Andrew Wernick (eds), Images of Aging: Cultural Representations of Later Life (London: Routledge, 1995); Ros Jennings and Abigail Gardner (eds), ‘Rock On’: Women, Ageing and Popular Music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

[35] Hepworth, Stories of Ageing, 1.

[36] Segal, Out of Time, 19.

[37] Kathleen Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents: Freud and Other Fictions (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6. See also Woodward’s At Last, the Real Distinguished Thing, in which she writes, ‘The literature of gerontology is characterized by bipolarity: unfortunately it tends to be either flatly optimistic or pessimistic’ (xi).

[38] Christopher Hamilton, Middle Age (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2009), 71.

[39] Hamilton, Middle Age, 72.

[40] Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age, trans. Patrick O’Brian (New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1972), 279.

[41] I have assumed a similar justification with my musical case studies, for while the experience of reasonably successful veteran musicians may not equal that of less successful ones, or of people in other walks of life, they still offer a privileged site for the witnessing of ageing. Such will often be the case with art and artists; those nominated by any community to express the experience of that community may actually live a rather different experience but they remain meaningful to the community nonetheless. See also Kathleen Woodward’s discussion of her chosen poets and their relationship to ‘universal values’ in Woodward, At Last, 20.

[42] Beauvoir, Coming of Age, 283.

[43] Beauvoir, Coming of Age, 288.

[44] Proust, Finding Time Again, 235.

[45] Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents, 62, emphasis in original.

[46] Améry, On Aging, 15.

[47] Norberto Bobbio, Old Age and Other Essays, trans. and ed. Allan Cameron (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2001), 4.

[48] Beauvoir, Coming of Age, 292–3.

[49] John Strausbaugh, Rock ’Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia (London: Verso, 2002), 10.

[50] Richard Elliott, ‘Popular Music and/as Event: Subjectivity, Love and Fidelity in the Aftermath of Rock ’n’ Roll’, Radical Musicology 3 (2008), 60 pars.

[51] G. Burn, ‘Jagger pushing 50’, Observer Magazine (10 January 1993), 23, cited in Blaikie, Ageing and Popular Culture, 107.

[52] Front Row, BBC Radio 4 (7 November 2012), archived at The same programme has conducted a series of such heritage interviews with members of the rock ‘establishment’ – including Morrissey (20 April 2011), Pete Townshend (19 October 2012) and Elton John (3 July 2013) – in which ageing features prominently as a subject of conversation.

[53] John Prine, ‘Hello in There’ and ‘Angel from Montgomery’, both on John Prine (LP: Atlantic SD 8296, 1972).

[54] Taylor Swift, ‘22’, on Red (LP: Big Machine/Mercury BMR3104000, 2012). The song was co-written by Swift and the album’s producers Max Martin and Shellback.

[55] Anonymous, ‘Taylor Swift, “Red”: Track-By-Track Review’, Billboard online edition (19 October 2012), (accessed 14 February 2015).

[56] The well-researched and informative Wikipedia entry on Swift cites a number of veteran musicians who have praised her work, including Neil Young, Stephen Stills, James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, Janis Ian and Stevie Nicks. ‘Taylor Swift’, Wikipedia, (accessed 14 February 2015).

[57] Harry Zohn, translator’s notes in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Vol. 4: 1938–1940, ed. H. Eiland and M. W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2006), 344.

[58] Zohn in Benjamin, Selected Writings 4: 345.

[59] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Benjamin, Selected Writings 4: 316.

[60] This and the preceding quotation from Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs’, 316. For more on Erlebnis and Erfahrung, and on the ways in which experiences become experience via memory, see Emily Keightley and Michael Pickering, The Mnemonic Imagination: Remembering as Creative Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 25–31.

[61] When the experience of having lost time is thought of as a condition of possibility for going in search of time and, with labour, finding it again, we are reminded of two points relating to mental life. One is that, as Eva Hoffman observes in relation to Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (deferred action), ‘We live forward and understand backward’ (Hoffman, Time, 107). The other is that, for psychiatry, care must be taken as to how far we travel into the past and how long we dwell there.

[62] Hoffman, Time, 78.

[63] Keightley and Pickering, Mnemonic Imagination, 21–2.

[64] We only have to think of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to see how this interaction is crucial to popular music. The group was offering ‘experiences’, of course, the like of which had not been heard before. The title of the group’s song (and album) ‘Are you Experienced?’ can be interpreted in multiple ways: have you encountered the experiences this group offers? Have you accumulated the required experience to understand what this is all about? Have you taken drugs? Are you sexually experienced? Have you experienced altered states of consciousness? Do you know what’s going on?

[65] Iris DeMent, My Life (CD: Warner Bros. 9362–45493–2, 1994).

[66] Nicholas Dawidoff, In the Country of Country (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), 14–15.

[67] Keith Negus and Michael Pickering, ‘Creativity and Musical Experience’, in Popular Music Studies, ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus (London: Arnold, 2002), 184.

[68] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee, 2005), 56, emphasis in original.

[69] Agacinski, Time Passing, 56–7.

[70] Richard Elliott, Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 126–30.

[71] This passage, not least because I have found myself using the term ‘a real desert’, cannot evade an association with Jean Baudrillard’s work on simulacra, simulation and ‘the desert of the real’ (Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1).

[72] Geoffrey O’Brien, Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life (New York: Counterpoint, 2004), 287.

[73] Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 36.

[74] Italo Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun, trans. William Weaver (London: Penguin, 2002), 54.

[75] Calvino, Under the Jaguar Sun, 50.

[76] Adriana Cavarero, For More than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, trans. Paul A. Kottman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 4.

[77] Cavarero, More than One Voice, 7. There are, of course, stereotypically gendered connotations to the use of a seductive female voice and an enraptured male listener who becomes distracted as feeling takes over from thinking. Cavarero is aware of this but argues that here the female voice, in challenging abstract buzz of anonymous noise, ‘attests to . . . the uniqueness and relationality of human beings’ and does so ‘against a background of sheer noise in a realm where the sounds of things and the voices of men have the same, essentially hostile, ontological status’ (7).

[78] Steven Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 35.

[79] For more on the physiological aspects of this, see Sue Ellen Linville, Vocal Aging (San Diego: Singular, 2001). I decided quite early in this project that I would not follow this kind of scientific study of the voice, as fascinating as it can be. While the physical, biological changes that occur in voices clearly have a bearing on a number of my case studies, I am more interested in the cultural understanding and interpretation of the voice and of a more complex notion of what constitutes ‘voice’ in the representation of age (e.g. the voice of song lyrics as much as of singers). Those interested in a more conventionally scientific approach in relation to singing voices may find Linville’s chapter on ‘The Aging Professional Voice’ useful (217–28); additionally, a number of articles in the Journal of Voice have studied singers.

[80] Tom Waits, ‘Ol’ 55’, on Closing Time (LP: Asylum AS 53030, 1973); ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, on Small Change (LP: Asylum K53050, 1976). The ‘patina of experience’ is enhanced further on Small Change by lyrics which emphasise experience, as in the romantically epic recollections of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ or in the boast, in ‘Jitterbug Boy’, that ‘I done it all’.

[81] Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 270–1.

[82] Barthes, Responsibility of Forms, 276.

[83] See, for example, my Fado and the Place of Longing, 61–4.

[84] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2000), 26.

[85] Freya Jarman-Ivens, Queer Voices: Technologies, Vocalities, and the Musical Flaw (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 2.

[86] Dick Gaughan, ‘Dick Gaughan’s Links in the Chain: Sandy Denny’, official website of Dick Gaughan, (accessed 30 August 2013).

[87] More or less any recording by Gaughan will provide evidence of this. A personal favourite, partly because we get to hear his voice in collaboration with two other fine but ‘clearer’ singers, is the version of ‘Shoals of Herring’ to be found on the album Songs of Ewan MacColl by Dave Burland, Tony Capstick and Dick Gaughan (LP: Black Crow CRO 215, 1978). The singers take turns with the verses of MacColl’s song; all are moving but the song takes a notably new direction when Gaughan’s voice enters, mangling the sense of the words in pursuit of the communication of emotion rather than story (rather, he reminds us forcefully that stories and narratives unfold in sonic as much as semantic form).

[88] Jarman-Ivens, Queer Voices, 5.

[89] Emily Baker’s work on the ‘maintained’ and ‘ravaged’ voices of, respectively, Dolly Parton and Joni Mitchell is instructive here. Neither voice emerges from analysis as unforced, though each tells a quite different story about its owner. Emily Baker, ‘Just Travelin’ Thru: Ageing Voices as Queer Resistance’, MA Dissertation (University of Sussex, 2013).

[90] Proust, Finding Time Again, 252.

[91] Richard Middleton, Musical Belongings: Selected Essays (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 350.

[92] Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 70, emphasis in original. Dolar’s comment on Barthes’s essay can be found on p. 197, fn 10. See also Middleton, Musical Belongings, 329–52; Richard Middleton, Voicing the Popular: On the Subjects of Popular Music (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[93] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[94] Dolar, A Voice, 76.

[95] Barthes, Pleasure of the Text, 66–7. I gather here a suggestion of a desire within language itself to be quoted, one which Barthes seems to recognise and take pleasure in as both reader and writer, succumbing (as I do in citing him) to the bliss of the beautiful quotation.

[96] Leonard Cohen, untitled acceptance speech, Prince of Asturias Awards ceremony (Oviedo, 21 October 2011). A transcription of the speech by Coco Éclair was posted at the Cohen-related website,

[97] Leonard Cohen, ‘Tower of Song’, on I’m Your Man (LP: CBS 4606421, 1988).

[98] Certeau, Practice, xx1.

[99] Dewey, Art as Experience, 86.

[100] See Paul Williams, Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1960–1973 (London: Omnibus Press, 2004); Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1974–1986 (London: Omnibus Press, 2004); Bob Dylan: Performing Artist 1986–1990 & Beyond (London: Omnibus, 2005); Neil Young: Love to Burn: Thirty Years of Speaking Out 1966–1996 (London: Omnibus, 1997); Michelle Mercer, Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period (New York: Free Press, 2009).

[101] Whether or not this makes it harder for such attachments to be made in a world in which so much is available in so many places so much of the time is another matter: another iteration, perhaps, of Walter Benjamin’s lament for the demise of the storyteller in modern society. See Richard Kearney, On Stories (London: Routledge, 2002), 125–56.

[102] I could potentially plot a narrative that took in the various points at which Blue has come up again in my life, the new meanings it has taken on and how those meanings have joined the strata of earlier meanings, enriching the ground of my experience. For me, a geology of the self would find a Blue seam running long, strong and never far from the surface.

[103] Dewey, Art as Experience, 24.

[104] Paul Williams, ‘The Way We Are Today’, in The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, ed. Jonathan Eisen (New York: Vintage, 1969), 311.

[105] See Cohen’s comments on Lorca, quoted above; hear Merle Haggard, ‘Someone Told My Story’, on I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (LP: Capitol ST 2702, 1967).

[106] Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, trans. Gloria Custance (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2008), 34–6.

[107] Jim Harrison, The Shape of the Journey: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000), 303. I have previously used this reference in my essay ‘So Transported: Nina Simone, “My Sweet Lord” and the (Un)folding of Affect’, in Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience, ed. Marie Thompson and Ian Biddle (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 75–90; there, the attempt was to account for sonic experience as it unfolded over the course of two journeys, one physical, the other intellectual.

[108] Negus, ‘Narrative, Interpretation, and the Popular Song’, 368–95.

[109] Dewey, Art as Experience, 76.

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