The Cork Board

Better to burn out than to fade away ?

It is undoubtedly sad when a famous musician, a person who has amassed a following, someone with a respected body of work, passes on to that great stage in the sky. I wonder, though, how many of the Converted ruminate on what their hero/heroine would have gone on to create. Would it have been better, as Neil Young would have it, to burn out than to fade away?

Being a self-avowed Deadhead I sometimes think what would Garcia be playing now, in his late 60’s, and would we still find it inspiring, or dare I say, tired and worn ? When I listen to Grateful Dead music now I prefer, by far, the 70’s decade, when youthful creativity was being driven by a growing sense of professional musicianship. When there was a sense of adventure and exploration in the music they played. Don’t get me wrong. I also find excellent examples of Dead music in the 80’s and particularly, early 90’s, when their ranks were reinforced by the excellent keyboards of Brent Mydland and then Bruce Hornsby. But that consistency isn’t there, for me.

...The Grateful Dead way back when ...
…The Grateful Dead way back when …

And though I wasn’t there at the later shows you can hear now that Jerry was finding it hard some nights, and more regularly, to stay firing. Several thousand shows in a lifetime are going to take their toll. So, was burning out better than fading away ? Or is it better to know when your body of work is done ?

... don't mess with Quent, and don't ask him stupid questions ...
… don’t mess with Quent, and don’t ask him stupid questions …

Quentin Tarantino recently said that he will stop making films when his body of work is done. That is, he’ll stop when he knows it’s time to stop. We’ve had The Rolling Stones for 50 years. I have been a big Stones fan in the past – but isn’t it time to stop ? Or………..

Do something new….. How do ageing musicians/ artistes, always known for a style or brand, keep the embers of youthful exploration flaring once in a while ? It’s a tough call. David Bowie announces his first album in 10 years and I wonder – I hope – that it pushes the boundaries again and challenges us to listen. I pray for the daring of “Scary Monsters”  –  the energy of Ziggy Stardust is too much to ask, of course.

... like my hat or I'll stare you down ...
… like my hat or I’ll stare you down …

The eternal dilemma is how do artistes counter advancing years and recognised works with the youthful exploration that brought them their original renown? Reputations are precious, and then again not, if you wish to continue to explore. Ask David Byrne, ask Dennis Hopper (if you could),ask David Lynch… ask Bob Dylan.

Do I want my heroes to stop or play till they drop, if playing till they drop means that they sound tired and uninspired ? I say stop. Let’s acknowledge that what you gave us when you were on fire will stay with us forever and inspire us.

That is, unless, you are inspired again, and we can all go “Wow” one more time.


... the lightening bolt of inspiration ...
… the lightening bolt of inspiration …

8 thoughts on “Better to burn out than to fade away ?”

  1. Ironically I think it is Neil Young this question most applies to. So much sub standard, going through the motions, material over the last 10 years. Some gems yes – but mostly very patience testing. The Grateful Dead are, perhaps, to you what Bowie is to me (I was 14 in 1972- that seminal age/era) and am eagerly looking forward to his first album in 10 years. I really do hope it lives up to expectation. Good, thoughtful blog Al, enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks John. I agree with your assessment of Neil Young. And really, it’s for that reason I’m not buying tickets this time around for his summer shows, though his shows do indeed rock-your-socks. I hope the Bowie album pushes onwards, and I shall take my hat off to him if it does. Since The Grateful Dead ended and after sideshows and the reformation as The Dead, only Phil and Friends have really kept me coming back. That’s because he played with new people in new ways performing new material with the odd GD song thrown in. As for The Stones, just how many times can they play those old faves ? Isn’t it like a 9 to 5 after all ?

  2. Isn’t part of the phenomenon, the fact that we want our heroes preserved in that moment in the past when they meant so much to us? We don’t want them to develop and change, age and mature – we want them to keep singing ‘that’ song – even when the style of the new album is a million miles (or 10 years) away from the original material. Perhaps the problem is precisely the fact that they are artists; they wrote their own material, have their own style, rhythm, lusts and loves which change and mature over the years.
    Is it the vibrancy of the performance itself, or the intensity of the feelings we brought to it in its day, when it spoke to us directly and told us about life? Some of the music I listened to as a teenager, are classics today – a lot of it is trash. I do find myself listening and enjoying the trash, even as much as the good stuff.

    1. Hi Simon, to an extent I agree with you and can see where you are coming from, but I’m really thinking about how artistes develop and how it is possible, if at all, to retain that fearless exploration that embodied their youthful work. I still find lots of music invigorating but it no longer tends to come from the people I loved in the past. I’d love it to, but rarely does it happen. Joni Mitchell can pull something out of the hat once in a while – as can Joe Jackson – and Brian Ferry ( or is it Roxy Music, or something ! ) have just done a jazz album (I think). I haven’t heard it but I applaud the exploration.

  3. It is sad watching a band releasing poorly written material, but that’s the music industry for you. I’m sure that to the band it’s great to be able to get paid to record new material, but if you’re uninspired, you’re uninspired. It really is hard to find the diamond in the rough album by the veteran musician, perhaps that’s what makes them such a treasure.

    1. I agree. I’d rather a band stopped at the top than plodded on, that is, unless they can come up with something new. It must be a tough call for them sometimes. After all, it is what they do for a living. Thanks for the comment, PLH.

  4. The elongated tracks on Neil Young’s latest album would be better to burn out after 5 minutes. However, ‘fade away’ is a negative version of an extended career and not necessarily the only option. Oh, and if you like classic American cars, you will notice that rust does seem to sleep in Cuba as the climate allows the bodywork to last forever even if the engines sound like they might be ripped from Soviet tractors. I wrote something about Bowie last week:

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