Not Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll, Not Too Young to Die | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Not Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll, Not Too Young to Die 

Nick Cave won't go gentle into that good night; Amy Winehouse won't go to rehab

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Amy Winehouse, Patrick Wolf
WHEN Thu 5/3, 7:30 PM
WHERE The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield
PRICE sold out
INFO 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212
MORE See the Treatment in Section 3

A friend theorized a few weeks ago that once artists pass a certain age, all the art they produce is about getting older. Now that I'm 30, I do not doubt this. I swore off the 30 freak-out at 28, insisting I'd already had it at 22, but it got me anyway. I've read that people in their 30s only talk about babies and real estate, but since my friends and I are all broke and unpregnant, all we have is the naked fact of aging, stripped of the signifiers of responsibility. I feel like I might as well be 60. The concerns of my 20s--how my hair looks, where the party is at--seem impossibly distant from my current obsession with planning for retirement.

Loving music at 30, you realize how few songs are about life on the other side of 26--and how most of the ones you can find are sickeningly nostalgic for youth. It's not sexy, it's not rock 'n' roll, to dwell on the soft terror of getting older--no one addresses the feeling of life receding from under your feet. Well, except for Nick Cave.

To paraphrase the Hold Steady, it's good to see Nick Cave back in a bar band. In his new four-piece, Grinderman, which recently released its self-titled debut, Cave rips off the distinguished-gentleman mask and shows us he's still the same greasy, swaggering pervert he was 30 years ago. The suave crooning and piano ballads are eighty-sixed in favor of burning basement buzz and a blizzard of wah. (Cave plays guitar all over this record, a first for him.) The rest of the band--a dream lineup for people who give a shit about Aussie punk--consists of Cave's longtime rhythm section from the Bad Seeds, bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos, plus Warren Ellis, violinist of the Dirty Three and a Bad Seed in good standing himself. They may self-identify as old duffers, but they still have menace in 'em. Grinderman is a midlife-crisis record, its sinewy feedback and vulgar wisdom the punk-rock equivalent of a hot red convertible.

Cave is laudably honest about what aging looks and feels like for a man. Vulnerable and self-mocking, he unloads the disquieting details: "My face is finished / And my body's gone . . . I suck in my gut / And still she said / She just doesn't want to," he sings on "No Pussy Blues." Rock careers tend to follow a well-established arc: You sing about the hard livin' and the easy lovin' until you're too old for the tale to sound plausible, then make a shark-jumping transition record that includes a vague lament about bygone days (e.g., Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer"). From there on out you're lucky to have a career at all, so it's best not to discomfit your remaining fans by reminding them that they're getting older too. Cave defiantly fires off this flare from the pastures of middle age, howling about his waning sexual prowess ("I felt like Marcel Marceau must feel," he grunts at one point) between riots of lacerating scuzz.

Grinderman is full of twitching tales of thwarted lust, but Cave's true fury is not for the women who'll no longer sleep with him. It's reserved for the world that no longer has a place for him. On the last track, "Love Bomb," he snarls, "I stood before the mirror / And I stared at my reflection / I almost disappeared / And I made no impression." MTV and the Internet only confirm his fear, reflecting a culture where age is treated like a contagious disease. He complains to a woman who no longer desires him, "I been trying to make some sense / Every action that I take is of no fucking consequence." Yet in his rage about his supposed irrelevance, Cave sounds as potent as ever.

British soul singer Amy Winehouse is just 23, and on her recent album of girl-group influenced R & B, Back to Black (Universal), she perfectly captures that solipsistic time Nick Cave misses so, when binge drinking passes for problem solving, every breakup is a life ender, and nobody thinks about tomorrow. It isn't explicitly about age the way Grinderman is, but it's very much of a particular age, of the hot mess your 20s are for. Winehouse paints herself as a rebel by pissing her life away as fast as she can--the greatest privilege of youth.

She's got a hoodlum elegance to match her bad-girl lyrics: she looks and sounds like a Ronette after a bid downstate, wearing thick eyeliner and a bouffy Indian-princess weave, opera gloves replaced by poke tats. On the album's first single, "Rehab," she refuses to clean up with a low "no no no," insistent as a stickup kid, and across nine more tracks of sophisticated boom-boom, she gets high, gets drunk, gets it on with other girls' boyfriends, cries, and begins again. But she's hardly apologetic--she pushes aside the lessons learned so she can get just a little more lovin'.

Of course all Winehouse really wants is a man to call her own, though she often scuttles her own desires with her willful ways. Cave, for his part, would settle for "a little consensual rape in the afternoon and then again in the evening." Taken together, these two albums suggest that the big difference between 23 and 49--the ugly elephant standing on the coffee table while everyone talks about their kids and their condos--is between more fucking than you can handle and having to beg someone to so much as take notice of you.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at

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